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Let food by thy medicine...

Posted by John McDonough  July 9, 2012 10:49 PM

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Time for some relief from ACA-mania.

This Mark Bittman column from yesterday's New York Times caught my eye: "Got Milk? You Don't Need It." Bittman confronts the "perfect food" mythology of milk -- and goes after it where it really hurts, namely the 50 million or so lactose intolerant Americans. I didn't realize it -- those 50 million include 90% of all Asian Americans and 75% of all African Americans, Mexican Americans, and Jews.

For Bittman, though, it's also personal, because he is one of the 50 million, so much so that:

"When I was growing up, drinking milk at every meal, I had a chronic upset stomach. (Channeling my inner Woody Allen, I'll note that I was therefore treated as a neurotic, which, in fairness, I was anyway.) In adolescence, this became chronic heartburn, trendily known as GERD or acid reflux, and that led to a lifelong Tums habit (favorite flavor: wintergreen) and an adult dependence on Prevacid, a proton-pump inhibitor."

Then:

"...three months ago, I decided to give up dairy products as a test. Twenty-four hours later, my heartburn was gone. Never, it seems, to return. In fact, I can devour linguine puttanesca (with anchovies) and go to bed an hour later; fellow heartburn sufferers will be impressed. Perhaps equally impressive is that I mentioned this to a friend who had the same problem, tried the same approach, and had the same results. Presto! No dairy, no heartburn! (A third had no success. Hey, it's not a controlled double-blind experiment, but there is no downside to trying it.)"

I have known individuals who have had the same experience. More than that, my brother-in-law, a naturopathic physician in Connecticut, routinely advises his patients with various gastro-intestinal ailments, before trying drugs or other interventions, first to try giving up dairy and/or gluten, to see what that does to the ailment. More than half the time, he reports, one or the other move eliminates the problem, just as it did for Bittman.

If you read the Bittman column, by all means read the string of negative comments at the end. One thing about food -- it's as personal as it gets.

Here's my humble conclusion: in America, we commonly advise people to talk with their physicians for nutrition advice. Yet the overwhelming majority of physicians learn nothing or nearly nothing in medical school about nutrition. They know as little as the rest of us about what to eat. Meanwhile, our federal government advises us that everyone should drink at least three cups of milk and dairy per day, a position backed up by billions in dairy industry money funneled through a U.S. Department of Agriculture entity called the Dairy Management Council.

Advising a patient to cut out dairy or gluten before grabbing pills and other expensive treatments -- it makes sense and it's free. For millions who have no idea they are lactose intolerant, it's a "get out of jail free" card that can prevent misery and medical bills for many, and can save lots of money for the rest of us.

"Let food by thy medicine and medicine by thy food." Hippocrates.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About the author

John E. McDonough is a professor of practice at the Harvard School of Public Health. He is the author of the book “Inside National Health Reform”, published in 2011 by More »

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