May 17th, 2014

Lactose and me

People often claim they’re lactose intolerant. But few people know for sure because few people have been tested for it.

I am one of those lucky, lucky few. For some reason (sadism?), a doctor subjected me to the test many decades ago. I even lived to tell about it.

And what I have to tell you is this: if you are truly lactose intolerant, the test is a cruel one. The way it works is that you fast overnight and then they take some blood and determine your fasting blood sugar. There are newer tests that don’t involve blood drawing, but they all involve the next step, which is the crucial one as far as I’m concerned: they give you a nice big drink of lactose.

Ever drink a lactose solution? It’s not all that pleasant, but the taste is not really the problem. A huge glass of it—I can’t recall whether it was 12 ounces or 16, but whatever it was it was a lot—can be swilled down even by those who hate milk, as I do. But if you really are lactose intolerant, it means you cannot digest the lactose in it, and there’s an awful lot of lactose in it, and so…well, you figure it out. Suffice to say you become very ill, and the bathroom becomes your very best friend.

Every half hour after ingesting the stuff (or was it every hour?) you return to the lab for another blood drawing. The idea is that if you are actually absorbing the lactose, which is milk sugar, your blood sugar level will rise initially and then fall over time in a certain pattern. This will determine not only whether you are in fact lactose intolerant, but to what degree.

For those of you who don’t know how lactose intolerance works, here’s the scoop:

Most mammals normally cease to produce lactase [the enzyme that digests milk], becoming lactose intolerant, after weaning, but some human populations have developed lactase persistence, in which lactase production continues into adulthood. It is estimated that 75% of adults worldwide show some decrease in lactase activity during adulthood. The frequency of decreased lactase activity ranges from 5% in northern Europe through 71% for Sicily to more than 90% in some African and Asian countries. This distribution is now thought to have been caused by recent natural selection favoring lactase-persistent individuals in cultures in which dairy products are available as a food source.

When my results became available I was told by the doctor that, unlike most people who are lactose intolerant, I had absolutely no rise in blood sugar level, which indicated I am completely lactose intolerant. That is, I don’t seem to be able to squeeze even a smidgeon of lactase out of my gastric spigots. And yet in fact I can ingest a certain amount of ice cream without too much difficulty. Where there’s a will there’s a way, I guess.

The whole thing reminds me of the fact that those who suggest that everyone would do well to eat a certain diet—such as, for example, the so-called “paleo” diet—because humans evolved on that diet are ignoring the many thousands of years of human adaptation and evolution since then. Lactose intolerance is almost unheard-of in northern Europeans, for example, and very common in people of Mediterranean origin. It rises to a high of 80% to 90% of Asians, African-Americans, and Jews.

I always hated milk, anyway, even as a toddler. It tasted so, so…milky. So being lactose intolerant is no biggee for me.

31 Responses to “Lactose and me”

  1. Charles Says:

    ” . . . everyone would do well to . . .”

    This, Neo, this is exactly the problem with so much, and not just with what diet people should be eating. Too many times folks make sweeping generalizations and miss the fact that situations differ for different people thereby making their generalization wrong.

    P.S., yes, I know there is a certain irony in that I am making a sweeping generalization too!

  2. Jack Says:

    Neo, do you ever read any Anne Rice? She’s got a book called Lasher which is the 2nd in the Mayfair witches trilogy, that’s got a WHOLE lot of milk drinking going on. I don’t know why but your blog post reminded me of it.

    We’ve all heard stories about some of the disgusting things other cultures eat, rotten meat being the one that stand out for me. You eat what’s available in your environment. When you’re transplanted to a different environment you’re just naturally going to have problems. Milk, rotten meat, water in Mexico…

    And you hit on something. There is not one-size fits all diet. (there’s a pun there I think) anyway I think you have to pick and choose what’s right for you individually. Although I have to say I think that there are a few diets that are universally unhealthy.

  3. neo-neocon Says:


    Nope, never read any Rice.

    But the idea that she wrote a book that features a lot of milk-drinking doesn’t exactly whet my appetite.

  4. Ymarsakar Says:

    Once drank a gallon of milk every 2-4 days.

    Then took some general antibiotics for a few days, and became lactose less tolerant.

    Then used microbiome theory to rebuild certain bacterial needed to digest milk. Slightly better now.

    The human genome can make small configuration changes during a person’s lifetime, such that their beginning dna is not the same as their older adult dna, thus passing on ingrained and learned traits not merely birth given traits over.

    The microbiome theory involves itself with the bacterial in a person’s gut. Thus if you lack the natural DNA ness of Northern Europeans, you can borrow some traits by exposing yourself to the same bacterial and environmental attributes as Northern Europeans: intense cold, sheep and cows, and various other stuff. Neo certainly has the intense cold down, but without applying the bacterial itself, it’s just cold.

    Where there is a will, there’s a bacterial in the gut that will make the way.

  5. neo-neocon Says:


    Well, since I’ve detested milk for as far back as I can remember and have no desire to drink it, I won’t be performing that particular experiment.

  6. Ira Says:

    “[Lactose intolerance] rises to a high of 80% to 90% of Asians, African-Americans, and Jews.”

    I categorically reject that challenge to my Jew cred.

  7. Ymarsakar Says:

    Modern milk is sterilized, thus any human dna grouping that digested lactose primarily with the help of the sheep, cow, etc’s milk bacteria, will not be able to do so alone.

    In extremely cold climates, like mountains or sheep herding societies (or nomadic Arabian societies), often without wheat or fruits over the winter, meat and milk from animals were the emergency cache. If the North Europeans developed with this over the generations, they might have produced a mechanism that didn’t need the bacterial in the milk of the animal.

    Many of the questions in the modern universe have yet to be asked, because science or its consumers have not known it was something to be asked.

    I like self experimentation, since it’s easy to do without a funded lab. Science only becomes a cult of fanaticism, when people are forced to rely upon the results of the Authorities, without being able to duplicate the results or even without understanding the methodology of the experiment. Thesis, hypothesis, theories, are powerless in science compared to the all powerful experimentation.

  8. Ron Says:

    I am NOT trying to change your eating habits but . . . I am lactose intolerant. No, I have not been tested but I know the effects. My problem is that I like different cheeses. I also like ice cream. The only way I can eat dairy and survive is to take a probiotic every day. If I am going to eat cheese or ice cream . . . well, I double the dosage. A good/reputable source is Puritan’s Pride. They are both the manufacturer and re-seller. I have been using them for many years. Other good sources are Vita Cost and Swanson.

  9. Ann Says:

    I never liked drinking milk as a kid, except for chocolate milk, which I was rarely offered. Turns out it contains less lactose than regular milk and is better tolerated by those with lactose problems.

    And about being able to eat ice cream. That may be due to the higher fat content of ice cream — higher fat content apparently slows gastric emptying, and that reduces the symptoms associated with lactose intolerance.

  10. Sgt. Mom Says:

    My daughter was … well, I hesitate to say lactose-intolerant … but once she was old enough (around a year old) to be given regular cow milk to drink … dear god, the horror of her diaper in the morning. My mother was sensible enough about all this to consult an equally-sensible pediatrician. Ah-ha, said the sensible pediatrician – feed her goat milk. And so it was, until my daughter was about three years old, and we transferred to Greece. I asked about the availability of goat milk. Sure, said my military sponsor – but likely you will have to go out in the country and milk the goat yourself.
    I declined – not having the time or liberty and besides, I had once tried to milk a goat … and my daughter did not drink milk, per se, for many years. She did eat yoghurt, cheese, ice cream, cottage cheese, and myriad milk derivatives, and never suffered from any of them. She eventually got to the point where she could drink milk without any adverse bathroom effects … but she and I still do not relish milk drunk straight. Make of that what you will.

  11. Matt_SE Says:

    “Lactose intolerance is almost unheard-of in northern Europeans, for example, and very common in people of Mediterranean origin. It rises to a high of 80% to 90% of Asians, African-Americans, and Jews.”

    What you are describing is the ongoing process of evolution, sometimes called “microevolution”, described in the controversial(!) new book A Troublesome Inheritance by Nicholas Wade.

    The gist is: evolution has continued, and genome sequencing has identified several hundred genes that are currently under selective pressure. These genes are not common between races, or at least not most of the genes.

    This flies in the face of the liberal orthodoxy that “race is only skin deep,” as some of the genes are known/theorized to influence behavior.

    Now, if you choose to read it (and I’m about to start it, myself), be careful not to tell your liberal friends. This is like The Bell Curve times ten.

    And I wouldn’t want to see you labeled as a H8r.

  12. kcom Says:

    I guess the Maasai are probably an exception to the lactose rule for Africans since they seem to feature milk as a regular part of their diet even into adult years.

    Actually, there’s been some genetic studies of that I’ve discovered. Sure enough, the Maasai have mutations that allow them to continue to digest milk. And according to the article (at least in traditional times) the Maasai diet consisted almost entirely of milk, meat and blood.

  13. Doom Says:

    You know… I keep thinking on that. Oh, I drink a lot of milk and whole whipping cream in my coffee. Two to three gallons a week of milk, a quart or two of cream. I love the stuff. But… it will often just sit there, in my stomach. I think I have some kind of rotating tolerance. But, since I like it… And, sometimes, a huge glass of milk will keep me feeling full for a very long time. I liken it to sawdust based foods. Just not all the time, so…

    Oh well. I like it, milk makes for a liquid meal my system and conscience can abide, so it stays. Don’t care what doctors or science says… Hmm… like someone else *cough* and ice cream? :p

  14. FOAF Says:

    Me too, Ira. While I was never a huge fan of just drinking a glass of milk (unless it was chocolate milk) I eat yogurt, ice cream, cereal with milk cheese etc.

  15. Ymarsakar Says:

    Many of the newer modern things like the paleo diet are more like instruction manuals than dieting guidelines. I think people have figured out, mostly, that listening to an all powerful and wise guru and authority, doesn’t work for everyone.

  16. Francesca Says:

    Love milk! Drink it every day. No issues maybe due to my northern European roots.

  17. Ymarsakar Says:


    Certain tribes moved around a lot. For example, one of the Celtic tribes from Gaul or Britonia, moved all the way over to Asia Minor, what is now Turkey.

    Some of the DNA bases are strange as a result.

    Japan never seemed to ferment or store milk, so the concept of eating cheese, which is milk gone bad, is not something they can usually handle. On the other hand, Japan does ferment beans into a sticky paste, which they call natto, which foreigners usually find just as strange.

  18. Doom Says:


    Urhm, and fermented fish. That… takes… something special… to even try as a Westerner. Mostly getting paste the ‘nose’. It’s just fish based sausage, but… And I can get the idea down, just… not the fish part. I taste that feted flavor I enjoy with well aged salamis and such, just can’t take the fish part of it. Lox or gravlax is about it for me, and that is pushing it without cream cheese and a bagel.

  19. FOAF Says:

    “pushing it without cream cheese and a bagel.”

    I didn’t even think of that. If Jews are so lactose-intolerant how did that happen? In fact it makes me remember that when I was a kid my mother was as likely to make cream cheese and jelly sandwiches as peanut butter and jelly.

  20. IGotBupkis, "Si tacuisses, philosophus mansisses." Says:

    I’m not even vaguely lactose intolerant — I drank 3 gallons of milk every 2 weeks well into my late 20s. But sometime after that, for whatever reason, I just “lost interest” — I found more and more that, when I bought a gallon of milk, it went bad before I finished it. But when I’ve been somewhere that it was available, I have no ill symptoms or other displeasure even when I drink a lot of it, and often do — I just don’t find myself drinking enough to justify buying a gallon, and a half gallon just annoys me with the extra expense.

    My body just doesn’t crave it like it used to when I was younger. I have no specific idea why that is, it just “happened”.

    My heredity is mostly Euro, for what that matters — 50% Italian, the other is mongrel English/Irish/Scottish/German.

  21. IGotBupkis, "Si tacuisses, philosophus mansisses." Says:

    }}} which they call natto, which foreigners usually find just as strange.

    That anything like Vegemite?


  22. IGotBupkis, "Si tacuisses, philosophus mansisses." Says:

    }}} “pushing it without cream cheese and a bagel.” I didn’t even think of that. If Jews are so lactose-intolerant how did that happen?

    I’m gonna make a wild-ass guess that it ties to northern European Jews, which were common until WWII? They likely were getting a lot more dairy products in their diets than any other branch.

  23. Ymarsakar Says:

    Never had vegemite, so only read the wiki on it.

  24. neo-neocon Says:

    Cheese is highly unlikely to be a problem even for lactose-intolerant people.

    Most of the lactose in milk and cheese is in the whey. All cheeses have a lot less whey than milk does. In fact, that’s how you make cheese–one of the steps is that you remove the whey. Cream cheese (which I don’t especially like) has somewhat more whey than hard cheese—in general, soft cheese has more than hard—but it has a lot less why than milk does.

    Plus, people typically eat a lot less of cream cheese than they do milk. A bagel doesn’t need a ton of cream cheese to be good. Just a tablespoon or two or three at the most?

  25. expat Says:

    I’m really lucky that I can eat anything that I get get past my tongue. I’m German,Scots Irish, and heaven knows what else, but I grew up in a rural area at a time when some of my relatives milked their own cows, made their own butter, butchered their own pigs, made their own country hams, sausage and lard, harvested their own apples pears and and planted their own vegies. I don’t pay much attention to the dietary advice du jour. As I said, I’m really lucky.
    Although I know something about epigentics and the microbiome, I’m reading The Epigenetics Revolution, which is pretty good.

  26. vanderleun Says:

    You weaklings just gotta, as we say in Minnesota, “WASP up and drink the Milkshake.”

  27. FOAF Says:

    I had heard before that Jews were more likely to have lactose intolerance. Just not buying “80-90 percent”.

  28. KyPerson Says:

    I love milk, have been drinking it all my life (I’m 63). I would hate to give it up but it seems to agree with me. Same for gluten. My ideal meal would be good bread, some nice cheese and a glass of milk.

  29. RickZ Says:

    I truly feel for those who cannot tolerate milk. Milk is such a great drink/food. There isn’t a day goes by that I don’t take, at minimum, a few healthy slugs of regular strength milk.

    Back in 1976, when I was in college, my parents had a Finnish exchange student for the summer (he was 18, I was 20). We went to DC to see the sights and stayed with some of my family in Springfield. We went running every morning and one time the two of us downed a gallon of milk in one sitting. My aunt, a nervous type, had a panic attack that we drank all the milk in the fridge. I told her not to worry, that there’s a store down the street and we’ll get more. But she was still worried. Jukka and I hit the store, bought two gallons (one for her and one for us) and came back. ‘See, I told you we’d get more milk.’ Blew her away that we could guzzle milk like that.

    FOAF Says:

    In fact it makes me remember that when I was a kid my mother was as likely to make cream cheese and jelly sandwiches as peanut butter and jelly.

    A great snack is a cracker topped with cream cheese (even the 1/3 reduced fat stuff) and hot pepper jelly. Mmm mmm good!

  30. davisbr Says:

    One of the few articles at Slate that I’ve actually enjoyed (and thought true): The Most Spectacular Mutation in Recent Human History: How did milk help found Western civilization?

    A “high selection differential” is something of a Darwinian euphemism. It means that those who couldn’t drink milk were apt to die before they could reproduce. At best they were having fewer, sicklier children. That kind of life-or-death selection differential seems necessary to explain the speed with which the mutation swept across Eurasia and spread even faster in Africa. The unfit must have been taking their lactose-intolerant genomes to the grave.

    Milk, by itself, somehow saved lives. This is odd, because milk is just food, just one source of nutrients and calories among many others. It’s not medicine. But there was a time in human history when our diet and environment conspired to create conditions that mimicked those of a disease epidemic. Milk, in such circumstances, may well have performed the function of a life-saving drug.

    You should read the article just due to the use of the term “mampires” lol.

    …and just to keep things in perspective (for neo’s sake lol), there’s also The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race

    …Now archaeology is demolishing another sacred belief: that human history over the past million years has been a long tale of progress. In particular, recent discoveries suggest that the adoption of agriculture, supposedly our most decisive step toward a better life, was in many ways a catastrophe from which we have never recovered. With agriculture came the gross social and sexual inequality, the disease and despotism, that curse our existence.

    At 62, I still imbibe a minimum gallon a week of the white …the “whole” version, exclusively (hate-hate-hate the taste of the 2% variety, or – gag me – even lesser percentages: I mean, why bother lol).

    Which amount doesn’t include various and assorted cheeses (of all sorts, soft through hard …without which I would find gustatory life to be sadly bereft of meaning), yoghurts (usually plain, and preferring the greek-labeled styles, which are rather firm in consistency), and kefirs (also usually plain: I positively crave the Persian drink doogh, a concoction of yoghurt and carbonated water and salt – and sometimes – over ice …which I was introduced to while we lived in Sacramento by an Iranian ex-pat …interesting story there, as he’d fled Iran as a young man just after the Shah had fled the revolution that brought Khomeini to power; there was a whole community in Sac’ of similar expats that we were honored to be able to get to know).

    …so my European genetic roots apparently dominate my native American roots as far as the milk gene goes lol.

  31. Ymarsakar Says:

    I only heard about microbiomes and good bacterial after internal martial arts prioritized the strength of the gut.

    A lot of this stuff was already researched by the ancients in their medical chigong. It just didn’t have a name Westerners could recognize, because the scientific method was different back then. Even Aristotle used “essences”, not what we think of in terms of germs or atoms.

    Rather than jumping on the band wagon of Western progress, I tend to think of it as the West finally catching up to what humanity always knew was true.

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Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.

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