As a health writer, I know that super-restrictive diets aren’t usually considered sustainable or even beneficial in the long-term by doctors and nutritionists alike. For that reason, I’ve always been hesitant to go completely dairy-free, despite the fact that dairy products don’t make me feel great. But after a DNA test confirmed what I already suspected—that I am definitely, 100% lactose intolerant—I had to face the writing on the wall.
According to the National Institute of Health’s Genetic Home Reference, roughly 65% of people worldwide have a reduced tolerance to lactose. Symptoms vary but usually include bloating and abdominal cramps as soon as 30 minutes after consuming food that contains lactose. When my intolerance was confirmed, I was faced with a huge lifestyle shift. As a vegetarian, could I live without eating cheese, milk, and yogurt, and would this diet change put an end to those uncomfortable symptoms?
Here’s how I removed an entire food group from my diet, and why it was the best thing I did.
I’ve always had what my family calls a “sensitive stomach.” I certainly don’t get sick after every meal, but having a minor digestive reaction to something I’ve eaten is not that uncommon for me. Anything super spicy or extremely fatty will send me first to the bathroom and then to my bed.
I gave up milk long ago, since it also does a number on my stomach, but have a longstanding love-hate relationship with cheese. As much as I love fondue, brie, and even nachos with cheese, I can pretty much count on feeling terrible after eating them.
“In people with lactose intolerance, the small intestine doesn’t produce lactase adequately and therefore lactose won’t adequately break down, instead getting drawn into the large intestine causing bloating, gas, and diarrhea,” explains Lisa Mikus, RD, of Laura Cipullo Whole Nutrition. Looking back, this is all sounding very familiar.
When I heard about DNAFit, a service that offers a full workup of your DNA from a fitness and nutrition perspective, I knew I had to try it. It was so easy: My kit arrived in the mail, I opened the package, swabbed the inside of my cheek, placed a barcode sticker on the test tube, and sent my DNA on its way to be evaluated.
A week later, I got my results. While some of the findings were totally surprising (I’m more likely to gain weight from eating refined carbs than saturated fats—who knew?), I can’t say that the fact my test showed that I’m lactose intolerant was out of left field. Now I just had to decide what to do about it.
I saw two clear options: I could start taking meds every time I wanted to eat dairy, or I could cut it out completely. It’s worth noting that many experts don’t encourage people to stop eating dairy completely, even if they’re lactose intolerant.
Lauren Popeck, RD at Orlando Health, notes that removing dairy from your diet can result in deficiencies in calcium, protein, potassium, vitamin D, phosphorus, riboflavin, and vitamin B12. Additionally, she says that there’s particular nutritional value in milk since the calcium, phosphorus, and vitamin D in milk work together to support bone health.
If you do decide to go dairy-free, Jackie Arnett Elnahar, RD, says it's important to balance your nutritional intake. “I would encourage supplementation and alternative milk sources like fortified soy, coconut, and almond milk, which [contain] calcium and vitamin D.”
For those who don’t have an intolerance, there’s often still interest in quitting dairy since it’s been said to have inflammatory properties. “It is up to your discretion whether or not it’s worth a try, as it is ultimately based on how you feel,” she adds. Regardless of your situation, if you decide to skip out on dairy, she recommends keeping a log in a journal about how you feel throughout the process. That way, you’ll be able to evaluate whether you’re truly noticing a difference or not.
Since I didn’t drink milk to start with, I really just needed to stop eating yogurt and cheese. Giving up cheese proved harder than I thought, probably because some experts say it’s mildly addictive. But here’s the good news: I’d been told by a friend who had stopped eating cheese that after about three weeks, you don’t even start to miss it anymore. For me, this happened after just two weeks.
While I was initially very tempted by many delicious-looking cheese platters, I was able to stay strong and stick it out for four whole weeks by cooking with my boyfriend most nights instead of going out or ordering in. We finally invested in a pressure cooker and made tons of amazing meals at home, which made the process a lot easier than I expected.
Though many say that cutting out dairy is the key to weight loss, the reason it was so life-changing for me had nothing to do with dropping pounds and everything to do with how I felt. After a month dairy-free, I’ve noticed that yes, my stomach is a little flatter and my jeans are a little looser, but I suspect that’s at least partially due to less bloating from less G.I. distress.
For me, the biggest change was finally understanding exactly why dairy makes me feel so bad when it eat it, and that whether or not I have that feeling is totally within my control. It’s empowering to finally have all the information about why certain foods affect my body in a negative way and know that while I can choose to eat them occasionally if I want to, I can also replace them with alternatives that are just as delicious and don’t leave me regretting it later.