Friday, February 26, 2010

Got Kale?

Mike suspects he might be lactose intolerant. I’d consider this a borderline inappropriate topic for public discussion – or at least not very interesting -- if we hadn’t just moved to Wisconsin. But I think our relocation might actually be implicated in the whole milky mystery. And while it’s a difficult thing to self-diagnose on the internet, my efforts to do so have yielded some rather curious findings.

The symptoms began prior to our arrival in Wisconsin. Mike never suspected a food-related culprit, largely because his stomachaches seemed to come and go at random. He went to see his physician about it several times, but the doctor always told him he was just digesting too much stress. His recommendation was that Mike quit his job. Mike didn’t follow this prescription. But he did accept the fundamental reasoning behind it. After all, plenty of people in Mike’s office suffered from chronic physical pain and discomfort. If he didn’t have a debilitating back problem or a severe bleeding disorder, Mike figured he was one of the lucky ones. Besides, he didn’t have a better explanation, and he was too busy working to come up with one.

When we moved here, though, his condition started to worsen. One day recently, he read an article in the Times about the onset of lactose intolerance in adulthood. We sat down to ponder his eating habits and discovered that, in fact, Mike’s diet had changed. Almost every afternoon, he now drinks an extra carton of milk. Why, suddenly, does Mike got so much milk? Because, he says, the cafeteria refrigerator has got milk -- a lot of it. Of course, this hackneyed cliché can only go so far. Every refrigerator in Wisconsin is not perpetually stocked with milk. But the deli on the bottom floor of Mike’s former office didn’t seem to move nearly as much milk out the door at lunchtime. In Wisconsin, there is manifestly just a lot of milk around for public consumption.

Mike’s lunchtime carton of milk probably tipped his total daily dairy consumption to an intolerable level. At least that’s what some experts would have you believe. Accepted wisdom is that you should “control symptoms of lactose intolerance by carefully choosing a diet that limits diary products.” The Mayo clinic certainly doesn’t own the last word on the subject, but the doctor-journalists at Web MD agree. There is no cure for lactose intolerance, they say, but you can treat your symptoms “by limiting or avoiding milk products.” The website Google Health breaks it down even further. “Removing milk products from the diet,” says Dr. Google, “usually improves the symptoms.”

Medical websites may try to build their conclusions from hard science, but they can also be kind of a downer. The data at seems to trend in a more upbeat direction. On the question of whether people should avoid dairy if they are lactose intolerant, they cite research that finds people with low lactase levels “can consume the recommended number of servings of milk and other dairy foods.” In fact, they contend, not only can these people handle “at least two cups of milk a day,” but the consumption of “lactose-containing foods such as milk may improve tolerance over time.” In the vein of practical suggestions, the website also recommends trying lactose-free milk, and emphasizes dairy products with active cultures, like yogurt. In the end, the discrepancy between the research used by medical websites and the nutritional expertise of the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board seems fairly inconsequential. If the dairy people are being overly optimistic, what’s the worst case scenario – that someone gets a stomachache?

I don’t say that to make light of Mike’s condition. I grew up eating Wisconsin dairy foods, and I still adore them. Having to get your recommended daily allowance of calcium from leafy greens seems hateful to me. And if eating cheese suddenly made me sick, it would be the purest form of heartbreak. If it were my illness, though, I'd probably listen to the internet doctors. I certainly wouldn't try to lessen the pain by taking medical advice from the same people who stock the office dairy fridge. I’m not saying they’re perpetrating a vast lactose conspiracy. But at the same time, it’s probably a good thing for everyone that they’re not growing peanuts.

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