A Balanced Approach to Being Dairy-Free
While I have made a lot of mental and physical progress since my period of disordered eating and exercising, the cycle did have a few long term impacts on my body, the most prominent being an irritated digestive system. A common side effect of disordered eating is long term IBS. While I have not been diagnosed officially by a doctor, I do have many of the symptoms and a few doctors have suggested the diagnosis. My stomach cannot tolerate certain foods anymore, and not just food that is considered “unhealthy.” A lot of vegetables disagree with me, particularly the more cruciferous types. Hummus makes my stomach knot up and excessive amounts of coconut milk will do the same. The list goes on and on, but one of the biggest culprits is dairy.
When talking with a specialist over my summer vacation, I was advised to try an elimination diet to find intolerances. Specifically, he wanted me to cut out dairy for a few weeks. I cringed at this suggestion, scared to cut out a food group completely. Eliminating foods, including dairy, was what set me on the pathway to disordered eating in the first place- I used to tell myself that certain food groups were unhealthy and that I could not eat them if I wanted to look good. I was nervous that cutting out dairy would set me back on the track towards disordered eating. I didn’t want to re-develop the toxic mindset I had worked so far to move away from. I told myself my mental health was more important than my physical discomfort and that for the time being I would be okay.
As summer came to an end and school started, my friend was also advised to cut out dairy. Both of us constantly felt bloated and had difficulty digesting, but was that enough to sacrifice dairy? Not only was I afraid for the mental component, but I also loved milk, yogurt, cheese, ice cream… how could I possibly do it? But then we started talking about dining halls and how they didn’t really have incredibly enticing dairy based meals or products. If we were going to try being dairy-free, the best time would be during the school year and not when we were home and the quality of these products were so much better.
I thought about this for a few days. I knew there was a lot of truth in that conclusion. But at the same time, what if I was craving cheese or ice cream? I didn’t want to deprive myself. I was also going to a wedding in a week! How could I not eat cake?? I decided to compromise: For the first week, I would do no dairy at all. Then, at the wedding, I would have my dad taste the cake and tell me if it was the best cake (or near best) he had ever had. If it was, I would eat it, if it wasn’t, I could go without. Then, I would continue until two weeks had passed and assess how I felt.
Even though my friend and I had discussed it, I was very surprised how easily I could avoid dairy in the dining halls. For me, this mainly meant not putting cheese on my salads. While I already ordered or made matcha lattes with almond milk, my friend switched from dairy to soy, which she actually ended up enjoying more. At the wedding, my dad told me the cake was not worth it (it was coffee and I don’t like coffee), so I didn’t have any, and I honestly didn’t feel like I was missing out. I was surprised how quickly and easily the two weeks went by. I didn’t ever feel like I was depriving myself, nor that I was developing a harmful attitude towards dairy. But, I couldn’t tell yet if my body physically felt better. I decided to continue for another week.
Four months later, I still have not had dairy on a regular basis. About three weeks into the test, I realized my body didn’t feel sluggish anymore and that I felt less bloated than I had in the past. I still feel bloated at times and think, unfortunately, this is just a side effect I will have to bear for a while longer, but I did feel a lot better physically, which also helped improve my mindset.
Now, none of this is to say that I am cutting dairy out of my diet forever. When I am craving ice cream, I will definitely be eating ice cream. When I went home for winter break, I ate cheese, butter, yogurt, you name it. I just don’t feel the urge to have it so consistently anymore, which is surprising because of how much I used to eat it. I think a part of me was dependent on dairy because I had completely eliminated it from my diet for so long. I subconsciously felt the need to always eat it, as if it would be taken away (which I would do myself during my period of disordered eating). I think now, however, that my mindset is much more balanced towards the food- I really am learning to tell when I crave dairy, which is not nearly as much as I thought. But when I do crave dairy, I eat it, because deprivation is never the answer.
My experimentation with no dairy has pleasantly surprised me, but that doesn’t mean it is a solution for everyone. If you constantly have an upset stomach or irregular bowel movements, talk to your doctor about different options. Dairy is one of the foods that most people are intolerant to because our bodies have a difficult time breaking down the enzymes (lactase) it contains, so if they suggest going without it for a few weeks, maybe give it a try! But only if you know your mindset will not be disrupted or thrown- please remember to always take care of yourself and do what is best for you.
Have you ever tried going dairy free for medical reasons? Have you found it beneficial? Did it ever harm your mindset regarding food?