We’ve all been brought up to believe that the only way to have strong bones and teeth is to drink dairy milk. But, while many of us remember enjoying milk in the good old days, when the milkman delivered those glass bottles of creamy pasteurized milk to the door, more and more people are sensitive to dairy.
Lactose intolerance has become more common in Australia, with about 10 percent of Caucasians affected and around 90 percent of Asians (including Indians). Indigenous Australians are involved in a similar range to Asians, as are people from Africa, the Middle East, and some Mediterranean countries.
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An adverse reaction to lactose can occur within one hour or up to several days after eating dairy products and the response may vary from person to person. However, the symptoms usually include abdominal pain, bloating, cramping, flatulence, and diarrhea.
A reaction to milk can result from two conditions. One is the body’s inability to digest the natural sugar (lactose) found in milk due to a lack of an enzyme called lactase.
A U.S. study published in 2000 in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition found people with this condition improved if milk was ingested with a meal rather than on its own. This suggests that slowing down gastric emptying can improve lactose intolerance.
The other reason is an abnormal immune reaction or allergy to proteins found in cow’s milk. However, this is less common, usually only occurring in about 2 percent of people during early childhood.
Fortunately, some people can still eat yogurt and cheese without any problem as these foods are lower in lactose and easier to digest. Some yogurts are pasteurized, while others are not. It is a good practice to look for those with “live” or “active” cultures.
For those avoiding dairy foods, keep an eye out for products containing whey powder or casein, as these contain lactose.
Alternative sources of calcium
If you are skipping dairy, finding an alternative source of calcium is essential. Calcium is a crucial mineral needed for strong bones and teeth. There are many foods high in calcium that are also in a form that is easily absorbed by the body.
These include salmon, tinned sardines, almonds, tofu, dried figs, and green vegetables such as broccoli, kale, chard, and spinach. Sesame seeds are also a great source of calcium and, when spread on toast as a paste (tahini), is delicious either on their own or when mixed with honey.
Another food especially good for bone health that has been receiving media attention lately is chia seeds. South America has used these seeds for centuries as a nutritious energy source. They are rich in calcium, phosphorus, manganese, and omega-3 fatty acid, with this nutrient combination providing maximum absorption for bone health.
Thirty grams of chia seeds provide almost 20 percent of the body’s daily calcium needs. The best way to use them is sprinkled on steamed vegetables, salads, cereal, or yogurt.
For those who can still eat dairy without any problem, remember that a small amount of fat is also needed for calcium to absorb well. Full-fat or low-fat dairy options are fine, but no-fat is a waste of time if you want to absorb calcium from dairy foods. Organic milk can often be found preservative-free and unhomogenized, so it’s in a more natural state.
Remember, bone health does not only depend on the food we eat; two main lifestyle factors can also make a big difference – sunlight and weight-bearing exercise. Ultraviolet light is needed for the body to manufacture vitamin D in the skin, which only becomes available to the body when partnered with calcium.
The amount of sun exposure that is healthy will depend on the climate, but generally, only about 10 minutes a day in summer and about 20 minutes a day in winter. Weight-bearing exercises such as walking are also good, as it strengthens bones by increasing calcium uptake and maintaining calcium stores.