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J Natl Med Assoc. Feb 2002; 94(2): 55–66.
PMCID: PMC2594135

Overcoming the barrier of lactose intolerance to reduce health disparities.

Abstract

Federal health goals for the public have focused on reducing health disparities that exist between whites and various racial and ethnic groups. Many of the chronic diseases for which African Americans are at greater risk- hypertension, stroke, colon cancer, and obesity-may be exacerbated by a low intake of calcium and/or other dairy-related nutrients. For example, a low intake of dairy food nutrients, such as calcium, potassium, and magnesium, may contribute to the high risk of hypertension seen in African Americans. The Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) study demonstrated that a low-fat diet rich in fruits and vegetables (8 to 10 servings) and low-fat dairy foods (3 servings) significantly reduced blood pressure-and was twice as effective in African-American participants. Calcium and dairy food consumption is particularly low among African-American, Hispanic, and Asian populations. Average intakes are near the threshold of 600 to 700 mg/day, below which bone loss and hypertension can result. Although lactose intolerance may be partly to blame for the low calcium intakes due to reduced dairy food consumption by minority populations, culturally determined food preferences and dietary practices learned early in life also play a role. The high incidence figures for primary lactose maldigestion among minority groups grossly overestimates the number who will experience intolerance symptoms after drinking a glass of milk with a meal. Randomized, double-blind, controlled clinical trials have demonstrated that by using a few simple dietary strategies, those who maldigest lactose (have low levels of the lactase enzyme) can easily tolerate a dairy-rich diet that meets calcium intake recommendations. Physicians and other health professionals can help their minority patients and the general public understand how to improve calcium nutrition by overcoming the surmountable barrier of lactose intolerance. At the same time they will be helping to reduce the incidence of calcium-related chronic diseases for which minority populations are at high risk.

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