A landmark study published last month in the Archives of Internal Medicine found that men and women who consumed a lot of calcium and dairy products were at a lower risk of developing digestive cancers, including colon cancer. The study of nearly half a million people over seven years is one of the largest of its kind and highlights why dairy products are often considered a key part of a healthy diet. Most well known for their high calcium content, dairy products play an important role in building strong bones and preventing osteoporosis.
But for many people who are lactose intolerant, dairy products bring abdominal pain and bloating. In fact, up to 70 per cent of the world's population may have some problem digesting lactose, the major sugar found in dairy products. Lactose intolerance is highest among people of Asian, African and Mediterranean descent and lowest among people of northern and western European descent. While lactose intolerance is often confused with a milk allergy, the two are very different. An allergy is the result of an immune response and can be life threatening, whereas lactose intolerance is due to the lack of the enzyme lactase in the small intestine.
There is no cure for lactose intolerance, but symptoms can be controlled through diet. In fact, sensitivity to lactose varies from person to person, and doesn't always mean dairy products have to be completely avoided, since lactose content varies widely among different dairy products. Often, trial and error can help identify which foods are tolerated and which should be avoided. Research has shown that people who are lactose intolerant are generally better able to tolerate fermented dairy products such as yogurt, partly because of its probiotic cultures. Other dairy products that are naturally low in lactose, including hard cheeses, buttermilk and sour cream, are also better tolerated. It can help to consume dairy products in small amounts and with meals to aid digestion. Goat's milk and camel's milk contain slightly less lactose than cow's milk, making them a potentially useful substitute for some people.
For people with lactose intolerance, it's important to figure out how much dairy can comfortably fit into the diet, since research continues to suggest the health benefits of dairy go beyond its role in bone health. In fact, a recent study published in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition found that teenagers who ate at least three to four servings of dairy products per day had lower levels of body fat compared to teenagers who ate less. This isn't the first study to link dairy consumption to weight control, which is especially relevant in the UAE, where studies have found that teenagers are two to three times more likely to be obese compared to international standards.
It seems dairy may play a role in blood pressure improvements as well. A study published last month in the British Journal of Nutrition found that older people at risk of heart disease who consumed high amounts of low-fat dairy products experienced significantly lower blood pressure compared to people who ate much less. Dairy hasn't been without controversy. While some people fear milk may cause breast cancer due to the presence of hormones and pesticides, current literature doesn't support a link. What is known is that a diet high in saturated fat, found in high fat dairy products, can increase the risk of heart disease. For this reason, it's wise to stick to lower-fat dairy products, except for small children, who can benefit from the added nutrients in full-fat dairy versions.
While dairy products remain one of the most convenient sources of calcium, they're not the only way to bulk up on the mineral. Some alternatives can be just as nutritious as the real thing. When choosing a milk alternative, your best bet is to look for one that is fortified with vitamins and minerals such as calcium, vitamin D, vitamin A, vitamin B12 and zinc. Look for a milk alternative with at least 25 per cent of the daily value of calcium and 45 per cent of the daily value for vitamin D.
Among the most popular milk alternatives, including soy milk, rice milk and almond milk, soy milk is best for its protein content. A 250ml glass of soy milk contains between 8 and 10 grams of protein, an amount comparable to cow's milk. Rice and almond milk, on the other hand, are usually quite low in protein and aren't considered an appropriate alternative to cow's milk, at least as far as protein is concerned.
Remember that food can also provide calcium. The best sources include collard greens, spinach, black-eyed peas and canned salmon. Most healthy eating guidelines suggest getting between two and three servings of milk or milk alternatives a day. A serving is equivalent to 250ml of milk, 175ml of yogurt or 40 grams of cheese. If you're not meeting this quota, speak to your doctor or registered dietician about taking a calcium supplement to make sure you're getting the recommended intake, which is between 1,000 and 1,200mg per day for adults.