• Becci Pigeon

You're not lactose're just not a baby cow.

Updated: Jan 20

If you're lactose intolerant, you're in good company: it's actually the norm for the majority of the world to lose the ability to digest lactose past breastfeeding age. In fact, lactose persistence--otherwise known as lactose tolerance--is only common in people of European descent, with the comparatively small percentage of 4-38% struggling to digest milk. In other demographics, however, that percentage rises dramatically. Approximately 77% of people of Southern and Eastern Indian descent are lactose intolerant, along with 80% of Africans and up to 95% of Asians. All told, about 75% of the world's population has issues with digesting dairy. (This is different from a dairy allergy, which is an unrelated condition.)

As the popular saying goes, you're not lactose intolerant--you're just not a baby cow.

Obviously this oversimplifies it a bit; lactose intolerance is a real condition. But it's also the normative condition, which makes sense: no other animal regularly consumes the breastmilk of another species. The comparatively high number of people of European heritage who can digest dairy is a genetic mutation--albeit a relatively beneficial one for the early humans who were struggling to find enough food to survive! Like eating animals, consuming dairy may have been necessary for some of our earliest ancestors--but it isn't necessary any longer. In fact, holding onto these dietary habits is the source of our biggest killers, both in terms of health and the environment.

With that in mind, the 12,000 doctor members of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine have cosigned a letter to the USDA to ask them to take a cue from Canada by removing dairy from the newest dietary recommendations, suggesting that the guidelines should indicate that dairy products are an unnecessary part of anyone's diet and 'warn of their particular health toll on people of colour.'

"...scientific evidence shows that milk and other dairy products increase the risk of asthma, breast, ovarian, and prostate cancers, cognitive decline, and early death, and offer little if any protection for bone health." (source)

The PCRM notes that while the USDA--with the full backing of the powerful National Dairy Council--continues to market dairy as an absolutely necessary part of a healthy diet, it is ignoring not only the negative impact that it has on the majority of the population but discriminating particularly against people of non-European descent. For example, though dairy is an asthma trigger in general, it is particularly severe among African Americans, who are almost three times more likely to die from related causes than white people. African American children especially affected; they die from asthma at a rate of ten times that of non-Hispanic white children. (The good news is that African Americans are also the fastest growing vegan demographic in the US.)

Meanwhile, here in the UK, 12-year-old award-winning vegan chef Omari McQueen is calling on the government to remove the requirement for fish, meat, and dairy from the School Food Standards. Unfortunately the NHS still recommends dairy wholeheartedly, though they do make some mention of alternatives. (Perhaps more encouraging is the fact that in 2016, they nearly halved the recommended daily amount of dairy, bringing it from 15% to 8%.)

On 15 July 2020, the most comprehensive review of governmental dietary guidelines to date showed that the UK and the US are far from alone in their failure to recommend healthy, environmentally-friendly diets to their residents:

“Countries are surprisingly bad in helping their populations to eat what they say is a good diet,” said Marco Springmann, at the University of Oxford, who led the study. “It was really shocking.” (source)

Researchers assessed governmental dietary guidelines against the six environmental and health targets to which said governments signed up as part of the Paris Agreement, and found that just two--Indonesia and Sierra Leone--met them.

“Most governments shy away from providing clear recommendations on limiting the consumption of [meat and dairy], despite their exceptionally high emissions and resource use,” he said. “The evidence of the environmental impact of our dietary choices is mounting, so it is really essential that official dietary advice is in line with that.” (source)

The good news is that none of us need to wait for any government to shake off the power and influence of industry to make the right choice. Milk is bad for our bodies and the environment, and it's even worse for the cows. But there's never been a better, easier time to switch to plant-based milk and cheeses. There are so many varieties--oat, soya, almond, hemp, rice, and more--and you can experiment to find out which one works best in your favourite dish or drink!

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