Monday, January 10, 2005

File this one under TMI...

So the night before last I made a cheese-laden veggie lasagne, ate a big piece, and promptly became ill in ways that I will not describe, because there are actually some limits to my willingness to share. And it dawned on me all at once that perhaps the reason I've been nauseous for months is because I have become more lactose intolerant.

People who are lactose intolerant can't digest a protein in milk and get an upset stomach after they eat dairy products. I realized a while back that I had issues with lactose, and I've tried to cut down. I buy the expensive Lactaid milk, which contains the enzyme that allows people to digest lactose, and I'm not eating ice cream anymore. But like a lot of lactose intolerant people, I could tolerate small amounts of dairy, so I still put normal milk in the coffee that I buy from the student coffee shop, and I still sometimes eat cheese or cheesecake or other delicious, lactose-filled goodies. I've figured that good food was worth the occasional discomfort. I don't know whether the prednisone triggered some change or whether it's just that I'm getting older, but I'm thinking that maybe my cut-back-and-ignore-the-occasional-tummy-ache compromise is no longer working. Maybe I need to be a little more careful and systematic about it.

In an effort to learn more about lactose intolerance, I did some googling. And I was sort of horrified to find that most of the information I could find came straight from the dairy industry. According to these websites, I am probably not lactose intolerant. (Never mind that something like 75% of members of my ethnic group are.) And even if I am, I can probably eat quite a bit of dairy without feeling too sick. (Never mind that my concern is prompted by the fact that I am feeling sick.) And even if I can't, I can buy expensive pills that will enable me to digest lactose. (And they are expensive: the ones I bought are $10 for 32 pills. You take either one or two pills each time you eat dairy. Assuming I eat the recommended 4 servings of dairy a day, I'll spend between $1.25 and $2.50 a day just on lactaid pills. That's hundreds of dollars a year. That's a ticket to Dublin or an iPod. Possibly two iPods, not that I actually need two iPods.)

The sites that aren't funded by the dairy industry mention alternatives. I can get calcium from other sources, or I can take calcium supplements. They point out that most adults in the world are lactose intolerant, and you've got to figure that few of those people can afford to spend $2 a day on lactaid pills. They raise the possibility that, rather than making myself miserable or bankrupt in order to get four servings of dairy a day, I should just figure that the food pyramid is not right for me.

And the thing is, the food pyramid is not right for most people. I'm not weird: Northern Europeans, most of whom can tolerate lactose, are the weird ones. I suspect PETA is probably right (how it pains me to utter those words...) that the dairy industry influences the nutrition information that the American government provides. But I'm even more certain that there's racial bias involved. Most white people, especially those from Northern Europe, can tolerate lactose. Most non-white people can't. Guess who mattered more to the people who designed the food pyramid?

These days, you can get your hands on alternative food pyramids. Check out the Asian Food Pyramid. (I like the little leaping stick figures to represent exercise.) Here's a Mediterranean Food Pyramid, which would have worked for my old diet, but probably has too much lactose for the new leaf I'm trying to turn over. The Vegetarian Food Pyramid allows dairy products but doesn't require them. On the other hand, the USDA's Native American Food Pyramid looks a whole lot like the plain old food pyramid, and it requires a ton of milk and cheese. Is that really going to work for people who almost universally can't digest dairy products?

Ugh, I can't eat much dairy either. It doesn't do anything bad to my stomach, but it makes my nose block up and my throat feel like knives and razor blades. I can't help agreeing about the (Northern) Eurocentricity of food pyramids. I think they were probably designed, sponsored and promoted by the dairy industry. My doctor told me that if I didn't drink milk, I'd die. I told him I'd never drunk a glass of milk in my life, and seemed remarkably alive in spite of it. Idiots.
PS that was me who made that comment, by the way. Sofiya.
You mentioned that you drink Lactaid. Have you ever considered trying soy milk? Many, many years ago when I first made the switch to soy milk, the stuff was definitely an acquired taste, but now there are brands like "Silk" that taste great. Cheese is a totally different thing. I have yet to find a vegan cheese alternative that tastes good. My vegan friends have suggested different brands that they like, but I've had to pass so far and hope that some day soon there will be a good tasting alternative that will not require getting used to.

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