Typically when someone tells you they are lactose intolerant they do it with a mournful look on their face. The face of someone who is missing out on some of the best parts of life because something is terribly wrong with their bodies. Usually the mournful look is met with sympathy from the person they are talking to. What a poor poor soul, not able to digest lactose. Even now as a vegan I have fallen into this all too typical scenario of feeling sorry for the lactose intolerant. Of course I use it as an opportunity to talk about veganism but I unconsciously give them that “sympathy look” nonetheless. The problem is that we have been conditioned to think of lactose intolerance as if it were a disease when in fact it is a normal process of life.
Mammals only need to produce the enzyme lactase (the digestive enzyme that breaks down lactose) until they are weaned. For humans this is somewhere between 2-4 years old. After that we are officially weaned from our mother’s milk and ready to get our complete nutrients from solid foods. According to Drs. Marie Boyle and Sara Long in their book Personal Nutrition 70% of the world’s population is lactose intolerant. With a greater incidence among people of African descent, Mediterranean decent, Native Americans and Asians. Here’s a quick breakdown of the incidence of lactose intolerance amongst people of color:
· Blacks/African Americans – 80%
· Native Americans – 80-100%
· Asians – 90-100%
It is clear that the “lactose intolerant” are not so much the odd man out, who is afflicted with a horrible disease, but instead someone with a normally functioning digestive system. I believe it’s time to turn the tide and change the way we think and talk about lactose intolerance. When someone mentions the fact they or someone they know is lactose intolerant our response should be “Great! So is over 70% of the world’s population” and then explain why. For me, after all the extremely compelling reasons to go vegan were presented to me the one thing that stood out to me the most (and what is ultimately the reason I went vegan) was what an unnatural process it is for an adult mammal to drink the milk of another species. What makes it even more appalling is the cruelty associated with the production of cow’s milk to feed a population that is literally being made sick by it. Changing the perception of lactose intolerance is just one small way to change the way that people think of the milk and milk products that they hold so dear. And you never know, someone like me might hear this information and not only go vegan but stay vegan.
National Institute of Health (National Digestive Disease Information Clearinghouse)
Boyle, M. A., & Long, S. (2007). Personal Nutrition(6th Edition ed.). Belmont, CA, USA: Thomson Wadsworth.