If someone had told me three years ago that I'd never eat another slice of real cheese pizza, an ice cream cone, or a creamy bowl of mac 'n' cheese ever again, I would have slapped them in the face for speaking such blasphemy. But here I am, three years off dairy; after watching the documentary Vegucated, I quit dairy on the spot.
The doc takes the stance that being vegan is better for the planet and kinder to animals. After seeing some heartbreaking video footage, I felt compelled to eat more compassionately and ditch dairy right then and there. My decision was also pretty easy to make because I had been majorly lactose intolerant for about 15 years and was taking Lactaid pills every time I ate dairy, which was three to five times a day. My body was telling me to stop eating dairy, and now, so was my heart.
If you're thinking about getting rid of dairy, or you're new to the cheese-free scene, here are some things you should know that I wish someone told me when I first went dairy-free.
The Beginning Is the Worst
That first day was rough because it was a Friday, and Friday nights were pizza nights at our house. We went to our favourite brick-oven pizza place, and my husband ordered a cheese pizza. I ordered a bean burrito, sans cheese. When the waitress placed the melty, gooey goodness on our table, I had a moment. "Was I making the right decision? I mean no pizza? Ever?!" My husband tried to offer me a slice, but I stood my ground, took a bite of my burrito, and was proud I actually had the willpower to turn it down. Honestly, I just kept thinking of the baby calves.
I skipped the cheesecake afterward, too. Damn, that sucked. I wasn't prepared for such strong feelings of sadness for missing out on my favourite foods. I also felt a little alienated, since everyone around me was eating dairy. Feeling so strongly about my views strengthened my willpower, but I was still a little depressed. So just be prepared for life to feel a little crappy in the beginning.
It's Worth It
The health benefits of giving up dairy shocked me. I knew my stomach would feel better, but until I gave up dairy I had no idea just how bloated it made me — my belly looked so much flatter. I lost a little weight, slept better, and had more energy during the day and more stamina for my workouts. I could finally breathe through my nose after years and years of chronic congestion, and a huge milestone: my acne cleared up.
Some changes happened in the first few days, like my belly felt instantly better — no more issues! And some changes took a few months, like my stuffy nose had cleared up and I could finally smell things! I had always suffered from seasonal allergies, but this past Fall, I had no symptoms! I couldn't believe how much better I felt overall. I even had people ask me what I was doing differently! So if you can stick it out for a few weeks, know that the benefits are coming and it'll motivate you to stay dairy-free.
It Gets Easier
Even though I was feeling like a brand-new me, old habits die hard and my cravings kicked in very strongly. The weekly meal plan written on my kitchen chalkboard used to read: Monday: bean and cheese quesadillas; Tuesday: veggie lasagna; Wednesday: homemade pizza; etc. Every single meal was focused around cheese and butter.
I had to rethink my entire diet since everything I used to eat was off the menu. It forced me to get creative. And although I learned how to make my favourite cheesy dishes dairy-free like this vegan lasagna made with tofu, this creamy dairy-free mac 'n' cheese using cannellini beans and cashews, and (my favourite) avocado pesto pasta, I was also inspired to get crafty with new recipes that required no dairy substitutes like these maple cumin lentils with spaghetti squash. Instead of taking the perspective that I was missing out, I realised how much more I was gaining. Ditching dairy forced me to eat more of a variety of healthy foods, and that helped me feel even better. Now I crave salads instead of grilled cheese; it's crazy!
You Don't Have to Miss Out
There are so many dairy-free options to your favourite foods so you won't feel like you're missing out one bit. These are my go-tos:
Yoghurt: Alpro soya plant-based alternative yoghurt, Co Yo natural coconut milk yoghurt alternative Mozzarella cheese for pizza: Tesco free from grated Mozarella alternative
Butter: Earth Balance and Smart Balance both make tubs and sticks of dairy-free butter; I'm a fan of the Earth Balance Made With Olive Oil
Slices for grilled cheese: Violife cheese slices
Ice cream: Ben & Jerry's Non-Dairy Frozen Dessert (the Caramel Almond Brittle is insanely good!) and Oppo ice cream (Salted Caramel with Lucuma is my personal fave). Or make your own "nice" cream with frozen bananas.
Cravings Won't Disappear Entirely
I'd be lying if I said the smell of freshly baked pizza wafting as I walk by a pizzeria didn't make me cry a little inside. And social gatherings are probably the worst, with everyone eating everything I couldn't from the cheese and crackers to my mum's famous baked ziti to the birthday cake. Know that just because you stop eating dairy products doesn't mean you'll be 100 percent happy about it. Three years later, I still get a little sad when I go out to dinner and my entire family orders dessert.
What you've got to focus on is how you feel. You know eating an enormous brownie sundae will give you painful bloating or show up the next day as an unexpected pimple. Keep reminding yourself that you're doing this for overall health — or in my case, for moral reasons — and the key is to find ways to satisfy those cravings when they come up. If you're craving cheese, it may mean that you're craving fat, so try noshing on some nut butter or avocado. And here's an insider tip: always have dairy-free foods on hand. Bring a dish or dessert you can eat to dinner parties, and I've even been known to bring my own salad dressing to restaurants and stash bars of dark chocolate in my purse to keep me happy. Do what you've gotta do!
You Don't Have to Go Cold Turkey
I'm an all-or-nothing kind of person, so eating a tiny bit of dairy wasn't an option (plus I gave away all my Lactaid pills!). But I tell people all the time, if you could never give up cheese, then don't. Can't live without ice cream? Don't. Give up what you can, and slowly start to cut dairy out as you feel ready. It's OK if you don't quit cold turkey. And it's OK if you eat it every once in a while. But from my experience, you'll be feeling so amazing, you won't want to!