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I would describe my feelings for pizza as love at first bite. Same goes for ice cream. And toast with no butter? What fun is that? So, you can imagine my dismay when my naturopath suggested I try a dairy-free diet to clear up my acne. We discussed what a dairy-free diet would look like, including alternate foods and supplements, but however happy I was to find a solution to my problem, as I walked out of her office, I was already mourning the loss of so many foods I had come to love and depend on.
Non-Dairy and Not Alone
And then I found out, at least, that I am not alone. According to a study done by the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK), roughly one out of every six people in the United States is lactose intolerant to some degree. This doesn't even take into account the millions of people who, like me, have non-digestive milk allergies or intolerances.
Thankfully, it's much easier to eat well without milk, butter, or cheese in 2009 than it was even in 1999--and you don't have to double your grocery bill either. In fact, many people with gastrointestinal problems choose to give up dairy willingly, and are glad to reap the benefits. As a species, human beings are the only known mammal to consume milk after infancy, which offers some insight into why our systems often have a hard time digesting it as adults.
Our small intestines contain a helpful enzyme known as "lactase," which breaks down the milk sugar (or lactose) that we consume in dairy products. However, many of us inherit or develop shortages of lactase after age 5, leaving us unable to properly digest the milk sugar in that bowl of cereal or chocolate bar. What happens with the indigestible milk sugars in our gut can vary widely from person to person, so much so that many people never know that that uncomfortable bloating has a preventable cause.
The Mayo Clinic lists some common symptoms of lactose intolerance as diarrhea, nausea, abdominal cramps, gas, and bloating. Other illnesses, like the stomach flu or irritable bowel syndrome, can produce the same symptoms, so it's always best to check with your doctor before swearing off dairy. However, if you do find yourself in the dairy-free boat, these substitution options may help.
- Soy milk: With a heartier flavor than regular milk, a creamy texture and fun flavors like chocolate, it's a great dairy substitute. However, it can burn and curdle easily or smell strange when used for cooking.
- Rice milk: It's thinner in consistency, more mild and slightly sweeter than soy or almond milks. This is my personal favorite for baking, pancakes or anything that's supposed to be light and fluffy.
- Almond milk: For obvious reasons, this has a nuttier flavor than rice or soy milk. It can be used in desserts but doesn't taste quite right in certain milk-based main dishes.
- Coconut milk: A much sweeter milk alternative with a distinct tropical flavor.
- Dairy-free butter: Ersatz butter can be hard to find. Alternative "spreads" and "heart healthy" butter tubs abound. The only totally dairy-free and still tasty brand I've ever found is called Earth Balance.
- Soy ice cream: It's not as fluffy and soft as regular ice cream, but it is much creamier than the rice ice cream.
- Rice ice cream: This dessert tends to be more like sorbet in its firmness and has a sweeter, sharper flavor than its soy cousin.
- Soy yogurt: Although far from common, this product is quickly growing in popularity. Be sure to try several brands, as they can vary widely in flavor and consistency. Bonus: soy yogurt contains the same healthful bacteria found in regular yogurt.
- Soy/tofu cheese: These may also be difficult to find, and will usually be marketed as "vegan," which means they not only contain no dairy, but no animal products at all. Some may melt better than others, or taste better alone or on crackers.
- Dairy-free chocolate: Yes, it does exist! Check the ingredients labels on dark chocolate for brands without milk fat, a common chocolate ingredient. Soy chocolate will not always be advertised as dairy-free, but you can use the list in this article's sidebar as a guide.
The Right Sort of Bacteria
In the year since I gave up dairy, I have learned a few things. If I am prescribed antibiotics, for example, I now make a habit of taking probiotics with them. This helps maintain the right kind of bacteria in my stomach.
If you have a lactose intolerance--as opposed to a milk allergy--you may be able to use lactase enzyme supplements as a regular part of your diet. These will assist in digestion while still allowing you to consume dairy products. It's also important to notice which products are "non-dairy" and which are "lactose free." For someone who is lactose intolerant, "lactose free" is enough; if you have a milk allergy a lactose-free product will often still not be safe.
Regardless of your current relationship with dairy, it is important to make sure you know how it can affect your gastrointestinal (and overall) health in the years to come. Lactose intolerance can present itself gradually over time. And for those of us who already know that cheesecake is out of the question for dessert, take heart! You're not alone, and you have lots of deliciously different options.
About the Author
Kathryn Stevens is a Regence Live Help Representative in Tacoma, WA. She enjoys reading, writing, people-watching, and public transportation (often all at the same time). When it’s not raining out, she and her husband take any chance they can get to enjoy the unparalleled beauty of the Pacific Northwest.