African-Americans show dairy deficiency

By REBECCA PEARSEY, UPI Correspondent  |  Feb. 7, 2007 at 3:52 PM
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WASHINGTON, Feb. 7 (UPI) -- If you haven't consumed any milk today and you're African-American, you're not alone in lacking key nutrients found in dairy.

A recently published study shows that African-Americans of all ages aren't getting the vital nutrients found in dairy products. That deficiency could lead to higher risks for diseases such as osteoporosis, hypertension and obesity. Although the National Dairy Council funded the study, the National Medical Association, the oldest association of African-American physicians, backed the research.

"This report further underscores the importance of African-Americans increasing the intake of key nutrients found in diary foods," said Dr. Albert Morris, president of the NMA. He emphasized that following dietary guidelines, which recommend three servings of dairy a day, is vital for Americans' health. Milk, cheese and yogurt should be included as part of a healthy diet to reduce risk of major health problems by providing enough calcium, along with eight other essential nutrients.

According to Dr. Greg Miller, executive vice president of science and research at the NDC, history has predisposed many African-Americans to their eating habits. Also, because of the biological makeup of African-Americans, a greater number of them are lactose intolerant -- 24 percent, according to the study.

The Handbook of Dairy Foods and Nutrition says 80 percent of African-Americans experience some form of lactose maldigestion, meaning dairy occasionally disagrees with them. The tendency towards this intolerance has, over time, created dairy-wariness.

But this intolerance might not always be legitimate. "It's a pre-conceived intolerance, not a real intolerance," said Miller. "It's a learned food aversion. It's a historical problem. It's become a cultural phenomenon that has been handed down through many generations."

Even if lactose intolerance is a real threat, there are ways for those 24 percent to get around it. Morris recommended several steps, such as eating hard cheeses and yogurts with live cultures, which are naturally low in lactose. He also emphasized consuming dairy products with a meal.

Though African-Americans are less susceptible to osteoporosis because of their high bone density, other calcium deficiency-related diseases such as hypertension have become a threat.

"It's going to take a lot of education and motivating messages to help African-Americans understand the damage they are doing to their diets," said Miller. That's why the NDC hopes to work with the NMA to create awareness of the problem.

Ideally it will happen through physicians, but for those who don't visit a doctor regularly, there are other strategies. "There's education going on in the middle schools and even in the elementary-school level in terms of nutrition, which is something that is sorely needed," said Morris. He also noted the abundance of milk ads popping up everywhere.

"We hope that this report will help remind African-Americans to consume nutrient-rich dairy foods everyday as part of a healthy diet," Miller said. In addition to preventing obesity and osteoporosis, eating the recommended three to four servings of dairy a day could help prevent a long list of other health problems.

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