Mutants, Milk and Calcium

I’m a mutant, and I’m happy about it. Mutants like me (you may be a mutant too) continue producing an enzyme called lactase as an adult. Lactase is the digestive enzyme which allows infants to digest mother’s milk, specifically the carbohydrate lactose (milk sugar), but most humans (and other mammals) lose the ability to produce lactase as they age. A genetic mutation, it appears, keeps my lactase “factory” working overtime, whereas most adult mammals, including most adult people, become lactose intolerant to some degree.

If you’re surprised to learn that most of the world’s adult population cannot digest milk effectively it’s probably because you belong to an ethnic group of fellow mutants, and perceive lactose intolerance to be rare. Populations originating in Northern Europe, for instance, have a low rate of lactose intolerance, and so do Tutsi and Fulani people in Africa, and the Bedouins in the Middle East. But, a high percentage of Native Americans, Alaskan Inuit, African Bantu, African Americans, Hispanics, and billions of people with roots in Asia cannot effectively digest milk in adulthood.

This brings me, in a round-about way, to calcium, because when you think of calcium you probably think of milk. But, what do you think about if milk causes bloating, abdominal pain, and worse. Here are some interesting facts about calcium:

  • You probably think building strong bones is the most important thing about calcium, but that’s not true. In fact, calcium is so important to other processes like brain and nerve function and muscle contraction (including your heart muscle) that your body “borrows” calcium from your bones if you don’t get enough in your diet. It’s the borrowing that results in osteoporosis.
  • People with lactose intolerance can get calcium from a variety of foods, including cheese (the lactose is consumed by cheese-making microorganisms). Non-dairy foods include collards and other dark greens, canned salmon (if you eat the bones), black-eyes peas, oranges, and a variety of foods fortified with calcium including alternative milks (soy milk, almond milk, etc.).
  • Taking a calcium supplement can be an effective way to be certain you get an adequate amount daily – 1000 milligrams after age 19 going to 1200 mg for women older than 50 and men older than 70. Calcium citrate is the most readily absorbed form, but you cannot absorb more than 500 mg of calcium at any one time (food plus supplement) so purchase calcium supplements in smaller doses so you can spread your doses.

Finally, if you’re a mutant like me don’t forget that lactose is a carbohydrate, and important consideration when managing diabetes.

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