This year marks five years that I’ve been dairy-free. I didn’t fall into the dairy-free thing to be trendy, to lose weight, or anything like that. I was having awful tummy issues, and I was trying everything in my power to stop my gut from exploding every day. Being gluten-free didn’t do a damn thing. Cutting out sugar, carbs, and fat didn’t help, and neither did adding more fiber or probiotics. Many of these things actually made things worse for me.
However, cutting out dairy was one of the few things that made a difference. A huge one. And it wasn’t enough to just start eating lactose-free dairy products; those bothered me too. I had to be totally and completely dairy-free. Let me tell you, it wasn’t easy, not one bit. As a vegetarian already, dairy was one of my staples in life. It gave me comfort, nutrition, and was just so freaking delicious. Nothing compares.
But it turns out that breaking up with dairy was one of the best things I ever did — at least for me. Now I just have to remember how quickly and efficiently dairy wreaked havoc on my gut to feel okay about its absence in my life. Still, I’m not going to lie: I occasionally miss the heck out of it. Sometimes my kids will be eating a slice of pizza with cheese dripping everywhere, and I’ll want to sob, I miss it so.
If you find yourself going down a similar path with dairy for whatever reason, don’t fret. If I could survive, you can too. Here are some tried-and-true tips for those newly entering the dairy-free zone.
There will be a weaning period. It will suck, but you’ll get over it.
Dairy must have some kind of addictive property in it because I swear there is a withdrawal period once you quit it. For most of us, we have to go totally cold turkey to see a difference, and it can be brutal. I found that all I did was think and dream about cheese and ice cream for a few weeks. It was brutal, but now I rarely even think about it.
Read labels. Dairy is hidden in every dang thing.
Crackers, chips, soup, cereal, even some vitamins — dairy is everywhere. Even things that are labeled dairy-free sometimes have dairy in them. Some people can get away with a little dairy here and there, but I like to be a stickler about it, so I read labels all the time, and I don’t trust anything unless I’m certain it’s 100% dairy-free. Word to the wise: Casein and whey are dairy components too, so even if something says “dairy-free” or “lactose-free,” but contains those ingredients, it’s got dairy in it (sorry).
Avocados will rule your life.
If you aren’t an avocado fan yet, you soon will be. Avocado replaces the creamy quality that dairy offers. And it’s got a bit of a savory, tangy thing going on, so it is a great substitute for cheese. I spread avocado on toast, throw it in my eggs, a tortilla. I’ve even been known to mash some on my pasta as a sort of cream sauce (sounds gross, but don’t knock it until you try it). And of course, there’s guacamole, which is basically God’s gift to all of us, dairy-free or not.
Coconut is by far my favorite milk and ice cream substitute. I tried a coconut milk yogurt the other day that was so creamy and rich, I was afraid it contained dairy (it didn’t, thank goodness, and my gut thanked me for that). Coconut creamers are great in coffee, and they even make flavored ones too. And coconut oil (which has been mythologized as the cure-all for every ailment known to man, woman, and child) actually makes a great butter substitute, and can be used in place of butter in most recipes.
Once you find a dairy-free product you love, you will not be able to get enough.
For months, I was eating chips with melted Daiya (a cheese substitute) every single night after my kids went to bed. Then I got addicted to Ben & Jerry’s dairy-free ice cream (seriously, the P.B. & Cookies flavor is to die for). You definitely have to try a bunch of different brands to find dairy-free substitutions that you like, but once you do, you will fall head over heels in love and will be totally unable to get enough. I promise.
Eventually, you won’t even crave most dairy anymore (but there will be a few things you’ll never get over).
Have I mentioned already how much I miss pizza? Oh my god, I do. There are some pretty great ice cream and milk substitutes, but it’s hard to find a perfect one for cheese. I love me some avocado, and Daiya is pretty rad, but real cheese, especially melted? I will always have a hole in my heart from that that loss. However, I rarely think about it anymore, and I never, ever crave dairy in any other form. Being dairy-free just becomes second nature, and trust me, you’ll be just fine that way.
Feeling better will be so worth it in the end.
Every time I think something like, “Oh, just one little bite will be fine, right?” I stop myself, and remember how very awful I felt the last time I tried even one bite of dairy. Then I remember how amazing it has felt to have a happy tummy all these years. So I’m good. Sayonara, dairy. And good riddance, to be honest.
I would not wish the dairy-free life on anyone else, mostly because it’s a pretty big pain in the tush to be checking labels all the time and asking your waiter 50 times if he’s sure the diner doesn’t fry its eggs in butter. But if you have to go that route, rest assured that you’ll be fine in the end, and that for some, cutting out dairy is a total real-life game-changer.
Feeling good should be a top priority in anyone’s life, so if you need to make the dairy sacrifice, know that it will be totally worth it in the end — pizza withdrawal and all.