Racism and discrimination continue to grab headlines throughout the country on a near daily basis. These incidents present themselves often in tangible, visible ways that lend themselves to those very headlines naturally, but not always. For example, one of them has hung prominently in school classrooms for decades as doctrine of healthy living despite, some argue, inequities of who exactly it is healthy for.
Doctor Milton Mills explained these inequalities of the US Department of Agriculture’s dietary guidelines at length, painting a picture of the historical negligence of the US government when it comes to crafting their food recommendations to the dietary needs of minorities in the country, led most notably by its impact on African-Americans. Mills is an Intensive Care Unit doctor in Washington, D.C., and a noted speaker on the topic of disease prevention through dietary methods, shunning the typical western diet in favor of eating a plant-based diet.
Mills spoke to a small group gathered at the Southside Community Center Wednesday afternoon in an event sponsored by the Coalition for Healthy School Food before delivering a similar speech to an audience at Cornell University. Mills’ seminal point was that throughout its history and its different iterations, the government-issued food pyramid and related dietary guidelines have overlooked and misserved the country’s minorities through a series of decisions fairly subtle to the casual observer, but with a significant impact nonetheless. The premise is simple: with an absence of minority voices involved in the process, their dietary needs have been ignored in favor of recommendations that mostly benefit the white majority of the population.
“It turns out that when we look at minority communities within the United States there are some endemic problems that occur over and over again and are troubling,” Mills said, noting that America’s tendency to victim-blame helps perpetuate some of the issues as well. “If you look back at governmental policy and the way the government has dealt with minority communities throughout our history, patterns emerge that it becomes apparent can account for a lot of what we see of these endemic problems.”
Even the foods marketed and conventionally considered healthy can be dangerous, Mills said. One of the leading perpetrators of this is the inclusion and prominence of dairy in the food pyramid and generally recommended for healthy growth. While this may have some merit for Caucasians (though Mills disputes research on animal dairy’s efficacy in bone development, the scientific community seems divided), the problems for minorities with dairy are clear. The incidence rate of lactose intolerance in African-Americans hovers around 75 percent, more than three times higher than the incidence rate of those with Anglo backgrounds in America. Other minorities are also diagnosed with the condition at far higher rates, led by East Asians at 90 percent.
On this point in particular, Mills relayed a story of a patient he had several years ago, an African-American woman in her 60s. She complained, as several of his other patients had, of symptoms that seemed to the naked eye like irritable bowels or something similar. Mills, as he would normally do, ordered her to abstain from dairy products for two weeks, with the hunch that she was undiagnosed lactose intolerant. At their next appointment, she said the symptoms had subsided and Mills then told her she was lactose intolerant, which was causing her issues.
“Oh, I know,” the woman responded.
“Then… why do you still eat dairy?”
“Because I have to, the guidelines say I have to eat these foods to be healthy,” she said.
This angered Mills to the point of joining with the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, a vegan advocacy group, and begin working to change. The food pyramid has a long history in the United States. It was first adopted by the US Department of Agriculture in the 1990s, was adapted in 2005 and then changed wholesale to MyPlate in 2011. It’s undergone several adjustments and shifts during that time, but Mills said as it currently stands, with dairy still holding daily recommendations of multiple servings, it’s insufficient, at least for minorities. Mills’ primary recommendation was to avoid these foods individually as activism and lobbying continue to attempt influencing change on federal dietary guidelines. Obviously, as an advocate he’s coming from a place of some bias, but he said a plant-based diet is probably the best policy for most minorities, a regimen customized to be low in fat and high in fiber.
Race and ethnicity dominated the majority of Mills’ lecture, though classism was also specifically mentioned, with Mills noting the inequalities in that realm slash across all demographics. Regardless, the message of his lecture was clear, agree or not: dairy has been granted an undue place in our lives and at our dinner tables, and he believes it’s deserved reconsideration for a long time.
“I look at dairy foods like crystal meth,” Mills said tongue-in-cheek. “It’s something you can do for fun, but it’s not necessary for your health and there’s a lot of harm in it.”