It all started in 2014. I was a sophomore at UNH and something wasn't right. I never wanted to eat, my stomach was always hurting and I was not getting the nutrients I needed to live a healthy life. It took me another year to figure out I had become lactose intolerant.
To me, the weirdest part is that I went an entire 20 years with no issues. I was allergic to berries up to age 16 and then grew out of it. Besides that, which was very easy to avoid, I had no dietary issues. So when I started to have so many stomach aches, I was confused. I thought it was the dining hall food at first, but I soon ruled that out because it wasn't only after eating there. "What is wrong with me," was always on my mind.
My junior year I went to the UNH nutritionist to talk about what might be going on. At this point, I still didn't know what was wrong. I actually realized it was officially a problem when one of my friends said, "you know you complain of a stomach ache every time we eat?" Oh, hm. Interesting. I suddenly had a realization that this was a health problem and I needed to address it professionally.
After talking with the nutritionist, she suggested taking gluten and dairy out of my diet for two weeks and then introducing them back into my diet weeks apart. These two weeks I was infinitely better! I felt amazing and I was totally fine. But it was REALLY hard to make the change and after the two weeks, I decided to let gluten back in first. I was fine.
Then I ate ice cream.
I was not fine.
And then I knew. I went to an allergist and told her about this experience and she said I didn't even need to be tested. If I get a stomach ache every time I eat dairy, it was pretty self-explanatory. I was lactose-intolerant.
For another year I really struggled with this new dietary restriction. I didn't pay close attention to ingredients and I still struggled with stomach pain. Actually, every year the severity of it is seeming to get worse and worse. Finally, I started to adjust to the dairy-free lifestyle.
Now, I'm a pro.
Here are some important things I have learned about becoming and being lactose-intolerant.
The scientific and medical facts:
- Lactose is an enzyme and when someone who is not lactose-intolerant consumes something with lactose (dairy) in it, the enzyme in their small intestine called lactase can break it down into a simpler form. Someone who is lactose-intolerant does not produce enough of the lactase enzyme to break down lactose.
- What about the Lactaid pill? For those of you who don't know, there is an enzyme supplement pill you can take right before eating dairy that helps the body break down lactose. It might work for you. Everyone is different. It kind of works for me, but only if I take 3-4 pills before eating dairy. I used to use them ALL the time, but now I find it easy to avoid dairy. I'll get more into that soon.
- It is VERY common to become lactose-intolerant later in life. According to the National Institute of Health, about 65 percent of the global population has a reduced ability to digest lactose after infancy.
- If you are experiencing issues and experiment with taking different foods out of your diet, you should still consult a professional nutritionist or allergist. IBS (irritable bowel syndrome) or IBD (irritable bowel disease) have similar symptoms and call for more professional attention.
How tf do you not eat cheese?!
- CHEESE IS CRACK!
According to MANY studies (but if you want to read one, you can read this study by the U.S. National Library of Medicine) cheese is extremely addictive! An ingredient called casein, a protein found in all milk products, releases opiates called casomorphins. These play with dopamine receptors and trigger addictive elements.
- Not going to lie, at first this was definitely the hardest part. I mean who doesn't love cheese? I thought I needed it on EVERYTHING! But once I stopped eating it, I stopped caring. Now I seriously do not even realize. I don't even want it.
- There are some cheeses I can eat!
Everyone with a lactose-intolerance is different, but for me, there are some exceptions.
1. I can eat goat cheese. Not everyone with lactose-intolerance can, but I'm ok with it.
2. CABOT CHEDDAR CHEESE!! Cabot cheese is the best thing ever. It's totally normal cheese containing 0g of lactose! Amazing. It is AMAZING.
3. A lot of lactose-intolerance people can eat "hard cheese" such as Parmesan, cheddar and Swiss. These contain less lactose than soft cheeses. I can't really eat any of these... Parmesan seems to be ok in small doses. This is why some pizza is ok for me!
4. Yes, I still eat mac and cheese. I just make it with vegan butter and soy mylk and then take a few Lactaid pills. It's not good with Almond or any nut mylk though, it tastes weird and nutty.
5. Fake cheese/vegan cheese is terrible, don't bother. Daiya, Go Veggie, just no. Vegan cream cheese is pretty good! The Tofutti brand is the best I've had. For butter, I use Earth Balance and for mylk I use Califia Farms...Actually, LOVE Califa Farms products!
- WHAT ABOUT ICE CREAM AND DESSERT?!
Have you ever had vegan ice cream? It's so good! If you visit NYC definitely find a Van Leeuwen. I do have to say, dessert is the hardest part of being lactose-intolerant. It's just something I have had to deal with. A really awesome brand for chocolate is Hail Merry. You have to try different certified vegan treats to find your favorite, but you can find some really delicious options when you're looking!
- What's the deal with yogurt?
A lot of lactose-intolerant people can eat yogurt because it is probiotic which helps digest lactose! Especially Greek yogurt because during its production process, a lot of lactose is removed. There are also brands that produce 100 percent lactose-free Greek yogurt. I eat only Chobani Greek yogurt but there are other options. Look out for yogurt made with "whole milk" that has, for me, been the WORST. You just have to experiment with what is best for your body.
At this point, I'm not even tempted by dairy-heavy treats. I know it's going to make me sick and it's not worth it to me anymore. And honestly, being lactose-intolerant isn't that bad. It's a very healthy lifestyle overall because foods with cream, cheese, butter and/or milk in them are typically very high in fat.
If you are lactose-intolerant, start following different dairy free and vegan Instagram pages for cooking inspiration and to learn about different places that serve dairy-free meals! It's honestly so fun to find these places and try them out.
Here are some of my favorite social media follows:
*Things that are annoying about being lactose-intolerant:
- Having to ask about ingredients and seeming "picky" when I go out to eat.
- Places that don't have milk alternatives for their coffee. This is a HUGE struggle. AND THEN when they do have soy or almond mylk, it's an extra charge. And yes I spell it "mylk" because it is not milk.
- People who say "that sucks!" Like COOL it's my life, not yours, and it honestly doesn't suck.
- No cannolis. Sigh. I'm waiting for a vegan Italian pastry spot to become a thing.
I think the most important thing to remember when dealing with a lactose-intolerance is to read the ingredients when buying foods at the grocery store. You'd be surprised how many things "contain milk" and there isn't really any section in the grocery store for these products besides any sort of "vegan" section... which is hard to come across. You just have to keep trying different snacks and find your favorites!
At the end of the day, it's really not a big deal. It's something that becomes a lot easier over time. Listening to your body is so important and becoming as happy and healthy as possible is just another element of living your best life!
If anyone has any questions, feel free to reach out! Don't forget, everyone's body is different so when it comes down to it, your dietary journey will always be unique to your needs.
Follow your gut! ;)
* Do you want more posts about being dairy free? What do I cook? Places I eat out in NYC? Let me know! Comment below or DM me. I love hearing feedback.