"Make sure you take a milk!" At lunch time, there was always a teacher's aide to remind us that our meals were not complete without one of the small boxes of milk piled up in huge bins at the end of the lunch line. Despite my former love affair with cheese I've always hated the taste of milk. The beverage that came in those little red & white boxes were absolutely disgusting to me and I did whatever I could to avoid having to drink it. When forced to, I would place a box of milk on my tray only to surreptitiously toss it in the nearest garbage bin once I was out of view of any nearby adults.
On luckier days, there would be some chocolate milk on hand. The sweet, chocolate flavor went a long way towards covering up the taste of the milk, and it was a whole lot easier to go down - or so I thought. Little did I know then that it was contributing to the near constant stomach aches, unbearable gas and frequent, unpleasant trips to the bathroom that I experienced as a child. My complaints were so frequent that my mom would schedule trips to the doctor's office, only to be told that they could find nothing wrong.
I often wish that I'd had the luck of coming across a physician like Dr. Milton Mills, one with the knowledge and awareness to ask the questions necessary to diagnose what should have been fairly obvious: lactose intolerance. Instead, I made my way into adulthood continuing to consume dairy on a regular basis, though I'd long left my chocolate milk days behind. I was under the impression that dairy was a necessary part of my diet, providing nutrients like calcium and vitamin D that would supposedly build strong bones. As a child in public school, I was constantly being fed the message that I needed dairy. From the Got Milk? posters on the walls to those adamant lunch aides, countless authority figures in my life told me that dairy was a necessary and healthy part of my diet. But how can my body need something that clearly causes it harm?
Lactose intolerance affects 60-80% of the Black population in America. This means that the majority of Black people in the United States do not possess the enzyme necessary to properly digest dairy. Hispanic, Asian and Indigenous Americans also experience high rates of lactose intolerance and are unable to consume dairy without some sort of negative consequence. Thousands of Black children across America who are over-represented in high poverty public schools are depending upon their schools to provide breakfasts and lunches, as well as some general guidance regarding proper nutrition. The U.S. Dietary Guidelines is exactly where school administrators and policy makers turn to in order to formulate the menus for places like public schools. So why does the U.S. continue to push dairy as a necessary part of a healthy diet if a substantial portion of its population can't even digest it properly?
One would hope that by now, given all the research available on the negative health effects of dairy, that these guidelines would be adjusted. Canada, for example, got rid of its 3 cups a day recommendation back in 2019, opting instead to group dairy in as a protein option. The U.S. Dietary Guidelines, however, continues to treat dairy as its own food group, recommending upwards of 3 cups of milk per day. One may respond that to their credit, the U.S. Dietary Guidelines have been updated to state that a comparably nutritious soy milk beverage may be substituted for cow's milk. But how does this translate into practice? The guidelines may allow for additional options, no doubt to save face, but what about cash-strapped public schools? I highly doubt that any of them can afford to provide an additional bin full of little boxes of soy milk for their lactose intolerant students. Not to mention that the MyPlate diagram, which is more public-facing and accessible than the 164-pg U.S. Dietary Guidelines document, continues to feature a cup simply marked "dairy".
The diets of children aren't my only cause for concern. The guidelines continue to recommend 3 cups of milk per day into and throughout adulthood, despite research suggesting a link to various illnesses, including cancers. It has been found that women who consume even 1 cup of cow's milk per day had a 50% increase in their chances of breast cancer. This is particularly concerning for Black women, who die from breast cancer at rates 40% higher than their white counterparts. Black men are also disproportionately affected by illnesses linked to dairy consumption. A 2015 meta-analysis of 32 different studies found that dairy consumption increases risk of prostate cancer, and Black men have the highest rates of death from prostate cancer.
The U.S. Dietary Guidelines stress that establishing healthy eating patterns in youth have a major effect of dietary patterns later in life. If such is the case, then it does a major disservice to Black children to insist that they must consume dairy, or to teach them that dairy is the only way to receive certain nutrients. Without a deliberate push to provide alternatives while making it clear that not consuming dairy is perfectly fine, the message received by most will be that dairy is a dietary necessity.
I honestly call bullshit on the notion that the Guidelines were purely scientific and created with everyone's best interest in mind. If such were the case, then it wouldn't be so blatantly misleading. To present dairy as its own food group implies that dairy in and of itself contains nutrients that cannot be readily found elsewhere, which is patently false. It also does this while presenting paltry, insubstantial recommendations for other more nutritious foods. For example, while calcium can be readily found in green leafy vegetables, it is only recommended that they be consumed in quantities of 1.5 - 2 cups per week. Similarly, beans and legumes, which are also good calcium sources, are recommended at an intake of only 1-2 cups per week. This is compared to 3 cups of dairy per day, in spite of the fact that greens and beans provide exponentially more nutritional value than a cup of milk.
I find it hard to believe that if lactose intolerance were not disproportionately suffered by Black people and other people of color that dairy would continue to be promoted as a recommended part of one's daily diet. It is difficult to ignore the contradictions and biases apparent in what should be a purely scientific and informational document, and it is difficult to ignore the racial disparities in poor health outcomes related to dairy consumption. Maybe if kale and lentils had powerful corporate lobbies behind them ensuring that their product was prioritized, promoted and subsidized with taxpayer dollars, the Guidelines might read quite differently.
My name is Nivea, but you can call me Niv. Proudly hailing from the Boogie Down Bronx. My lifelong passion for social justice issues led me to earn a BA in Sociology from Columbia University. Currently I'm an NASM Certified Nutrition Coach & Personal Trainer with a love of all things plant-based. I'm just here, eating my plants, minding my business, and trying to find a peaceful path in a hostile world.