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Milk Matters

Milk MattersAfrican Americans are not getting enough calcium, one of two emerging health issues to be concerned about, researcher says

Diets high in fat and calories and low in calcium, may not only be putting African- American children at risk for obesity, but can make them prone to a common bone disease associated with adults at mid-life.

If children and adolescents don’t receive adequate amounts of calcium when their bones are still forming, the chances of them getting osteoporosis, a debilitating bone disease, not only increases but cannot be reversed, warns Dr. Yvonne Bronner, a nutritionist and director of the Public Health Program at Morgan State University in Baltimore. While calcium alone does not prevent or cure osteoporosis, it plays an important role in maintaining bone, according to the National Osteoporosis Foundation.

By the time children reach mid-life and begin to experience calcium loss associated with growing older — past menopause for women and in the 50s for men — they will already be at a deficit, Bronner says. She served as a panelist and scholar on a new Consensus Report issued in December by the National Medical Association (NMA), the nation’s oldest and largest organization representing Black physicians in the United States and the Caribbean.

Calling osteoporosis and childhood obesity “two emerging issues that African Americans need to be concerned about,” Bronner says new compelling information linking calcium intake to the reduction and prevention of these diseases is promising.

The NMA Consensus Report found that the majority of African Americans should be increasing their intake of calcium to reduce the risk of contracting chronic diseases. Of particular concern, 83 percent of African-American children (aged 2-17) are not getting enough calcium, the report found. These findings were based on research that suggests calcium, and other components of dairy products, provide significant health benefits.

“New information shows a clear, beneficial relationship between a healthy diet with three to four daily servings of low-fat dairy products and the reduction of obesity and hypertension, as well as risk reduction for several diseases that affect African Americans, including heart disease and colon cancer,” says NMA President Dr. Winston Price.

But Bronner says the majority of African Americans get only about half of the daily recommended amount of calcium and only eat one or more servings of dairy a day. She remembers a time when the dinner plates of many African Americans were piled high with calcium-rich dark leafy vegetables like collard or mustard greens at least two to  three times a week. Unfortunately, Bronner says, that dietary staple has changed.

“These green leafy vegetables are rich in calcium and almost always equal in content to a cup of milk,” she adds.

But “the real tragedy,” warns Bronner, is the impact of calcium-depleted diets on African American children between ages two and 12 who often grow up drinking little milk with their meals compared to the rest of the population under 18 years old. Data showed, however, that when milk is offered at lunches outside the home — primarily in schools — African-American children enjoy it at levels comparable to the rest of the population.

Concerns about lactose intolerance, whether real or perceived, and cultural and taste preferences, have prevented African Americans from eating dairy products, Bronner explains. Armed with new research from the African American Lactose Intolerance Understanding Study (AALIUS), which looked at the reasons behind this trend, the NMA Consensus Report found that “the majority of African Americans (75 percent) do not classify themselves as lactose intolerant, which was a surprising discovery from previous estimates.”

In fact, researchers found that when African Americans consume medium-to-high amounts of dairy foods per day (more than one serving) they are less likely to experience symptoms of lactose intolerance, the inability to digest the sugar found in milk. The disorder can cause gas, cramps and diarrhea.

Spurred by the AALIUS findings, Bronner said that Morgan’s Public Health Program will use a grant from the National Institutes of Health’s National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine to devise strategies for “getting more African Americans to include calcium in their diets in the form of green vegetables or dairy products.”

In addition, Bronner says, Morgan’s Public Health Program will begin “translating the science into practice in our community which is really what our program has always been about.” That will mean, she says, reviewing physiological and culturally specific study data on lactose intolerance as well as the “finding that people can adapt to tolerated levels of calcium, something that’s not widely known.”

— B.D.H.

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