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Several years ago a fellow writer approached me at a party and said, "I read your column, but I don't go to any of the restaurants you recommend."
I'm used to backhanded compliments, even downright insults. So I just shrugged and said, "Why not?"
"I'm lactose intolerant," he admitted.
When he and millions of others consume lactose, also called milk sugar, which is in cheese, ice cream, cream sauces -- all that yummy stuff I frequently write about -- the undigested lactose in his system ferments. This causes discomforting, even painful, symptoms most of us are too polite to discuss at the dinner table. Owing to a deficiency of the enzyme lactase in his small intestine, he can't digest lactose.
Reports vary on how widespread the disorder is. According to The American Medical Association Encyclopedia of Medicine, permanent lactase deficiency, the condition that leads to lactose intolerance, "develops in about 80 to 90 percent of blacks and Orientals and in about 5 to 15 percent of whites." The Cecil Textbook of Medicine takes a more conservative approach, allowing that "60 to 90 percent of American Indians, black Americans, and Asians" suffer from primary lactase deficiency. In short, writes Sheri Updike, author of The Lactose-Free Cookbook, "approximately 80 percent of the world's population cannot drink milk without experiencing some digestive problems." Lactose intolerance, she insists, "is the norm."
Then there are the legions who avoid dairy for dietary reasons. After all, it's fattening and can raise cholesterol levels. Some nursing moms won't eat dairy because babies are sensitive to it, and some people have antibodies that render them allergic to the proteins in milk and related substances.
So where does that leave us? Should we react like my writer friend and simply stay home?
Yes, I do mean "us." My husband and I are both lactose intolerant. But it's probably obvious from my columns that we don't let it interfere with the physical and emotional pleasures of dining out.
The key, for me, is in sampling.
While a block of four-cheese lasagna could put me in the bathroom for a week, a bite or two of fettuccine Alfredo doesn't hurt. And for those who are truly lactose intolerant, as opposed to allergic or lactating, there is dairy's little helper. Called Lactaid Ultra, these innocuous little pills, packaged individually like Sweet 'N Low for convenience, don't contain drugs; they simply supply the lactase enzyme, allowing you to digest dairy foods comfortably. (Swallow Lactaid pills or drops right before you eat.)
But many people like my husband are extremely sensitive, and it takes more than Lactaid to help the meal go down smoothly. For these people (and maybe my colleague is one) dining out safely becomes a touch more difficult. But not impossible. First of all you can always order a dish like pizza without the cheese. A customer-oriented restaurant will honor your request, even if it means the resulting concoction will be altered in ways the chef never intended. In fact, lactose intolerance turned out to be a hidden blessing for me. It's a good way to challenge just how cooperative a restaurant is with special requests. And often you are better able to taste the food without thick blankets of cream or cheese.
Sometimes it's not enough to be picky about what dishes you eat. You have to choose the type of nosh just as wisely. Ethnicity is a factor. Mexican, Italian, French, and German restaurants, for example, go heavy on dairy; they offer meals that can funk up the digestive system and also eat away at the willpower. What fun are chips and salsa when everyone else is slurping up nachos covered with melted cheese and sour cream?
I favor Asian restaurants, particularly Japanese ones, for a quick, nondairy meal. There may be a reason why most Asians are physically averse to milk; traditionally it simply isn't part of their collective diet. Unless the tuna swallowed a pint of Häagen-Dazs ice cream right before it was filleted, chances are the raw fish and rice have no lactose. (Steer clear of sushi rolls made with cream cheese.)
Stir-fried meat and vegetable dishes, particularly the Chinese variety, can be deliciously satisfying without being worrisome. But take care with battered foods, such as lemon chicken or items made with dough, like egg rolls or dumplings. Some restaurants use milk (or eggs, which are often classified as a dairy food) in the mixes. Chinese restaurants are notorious for preparing food with monosodium glutamate (MSG), a common flavor enhancer and preservative. Many people are aware that MSG causes headaches or dizziness, but few know that it contains a good quantity of lactose.
Sheri Updike warns about "hidden lactose," which may be present in everything from MSG to birth control pills. (Lactose is often used as a filler for prescription medications.) Along those lines some Asian cuisines that skip on the dairy are not necessarily lactose-free. Indian food, for instance, makes use of a butter product called ghee. Some curries and many noncreamy dishes may contain it, so it's smart to question the chef. On the other hand, Thai dishes like Penang curry, made with coconut milk, look and taste creamy but don't actually contain dairy.