Earlier this year, I was eating dairy for every meal, as well as in between meals.
Since I'm living abroad, it's an affordable and filling food group, no matter where I am in the world. For example, I'd drink yogurt for breakfast, have fresh bread with butter and cheese for lunch, eat some version of homemade macaroni and cheese or pizza for dinner, and end with ice cream or gelato for dessert.
Oh, and let's not forget about the mug of warm milk to help me sleep at night.
Though this dairy-rich diet was delicious, I started to feel sluggish. Plus, my rosacea — a skin condition that causes facial pinkness or redness and visible blood vessels — seemed to be getting worse. According to The National Rosacea Society, some dairy products may trigger flare-ups of the condition, so I decided to give it up for at least six weeks.
"Giving up dairy is OK and can be a healthy choice," Maya Feller, registered dietitian nutritionist, told me via email. "Dairy is a good source of vitamin D (when fortified), protein, and nutrients, including calcium and potassium. However, all of these macro and micro nutrients can be obtained from a well-planned, healthy, and balanced dairy-free diet."
Giving up dairy was not easy. Aside from eliminating my favorite go-to foods, I discovered that traces of dairy can be found in many food products, from cookies to soup.
I definitely noticed changes after eliminating dairy from my diet. Of course, there may have been a placebo effect at play, but after being off dairy for six weeks, I saw differences in my complexion, my energy levels, and the way I felt.
Here are five things that happened when I gave up dairy.
The main result I experienced from giving up dairy was an improvement in my complexion. It didn't happen overnight, but my rosacea seemed to get better — my face became less flushed and I had fewer acne-like flare-ups. By the time I hit the six-week mark, they'd disappeared almost completely.
"It seems that improvement starts to be noticeable after 12 weeks with regard to skin, but that's not hard and fast, as additional research is needed," Feller said.
Experts are divided about whether dairy can worsen acne and rosacea.
"There is some evidence, not very strong, that drinking milk of any fat variety is associated with increased acne," Dr Amy Taub, a dermatologist and the founder of a dermatology practice called Advanced Dermatology in Illinois, told me. "There is also no evidence to link dairy consumption to rosacea."
Only when I stopped eating dairy did I realise how much of it I'd been consuming. Without dairy in my diet, I started to buy foods that I'd been avoiding because they required a bit more work to prepare, such as sweet potatoes.
Not only are sweet potatoes rich in antioxidants, but they also contain a lot of fibre. Plus, the sweetness showed me that healthy foods can be tasty, too. I started to go to vegan restaurants as well, which my carnivore self had previously shunned. It turns out that beetroot spring rolls filled with carrots and dipped in agave peanut butter sauce are delicious.
As for my glass of milk before bed, I tried many dairy-free substitutes: almond, soy, oat, coconut, and coconut chocolate. Coconut chocolate was my favourite, though the more sweet vegetables and fruits I consumed, the less I wanted the drink at all. My nightly "milk" tasted too sweet, so I stopped drinking it altogether.
In giving up dairy, I felt less bloated almost immediately and had fewer stomach aches, which may be a sign that I'm actually lactose intolerant.
"Some people are lactose intolerant, which means they can't digest foods with lactose, the sugar found in milk and other dairy products," Jennifer Caudle, a family physician and associate professor at Rowan University School of Osteopathic Medicine, told me. "Symptoms of lactose intolerance can include bloating, gas, stomach cramps, and diarrhea."
Caudle said that some of her patients have reported feeling less bloated when they stop eating dairy. "However, it is something that should be evaluated on a case-by-case basis," she said.
I used to get migraines frequently. When a friend told me that cutting out dairy, especially certain types of cheeses, helped her migraines go away, I thought it sounded ridiculous.
But it worked for me, too. According to the National Headache Foundation, some cheeses — such as aged ones — can be headache or migraine triggers.
I attributed my newfound energy to a more diversified diet. As long as I remembered to get my fill of calcium and nutrients, I no longer felt lethargic like I did before the experiment.
However, there may have been other factors beyond the change in my dairy intake. Prior to this experiment, my diet had also been high in carbs and sugary foods. Sweets and refined carbohydrates like white pastas and breads fall high on the Glycemic Index (GI) scale, meaning that they significantly raise the amount of glucose in your blood after you eat them. High-GI foods can lead your energy levels to spike and then crash.
When I gave up dairy, the effort led me to eat a more diversified diet, which included more low-GI foods. Such foods don't cause the same spikes in blood sugar, so result in more sustained energy levels.
But I no longer eliminate 100% of dairy products.
Caudle said it's most important to eat a healthy and well-balanced diet to get enough nutrients.
"Dairy contains lots of calcium, protein, and vitamin D, among other nutrients," she said. "If dairy is eliminated from the diet, it is important for these nutrients to be obtained through other sources. Calcium and vitamin D are important for the health of bones and teeth, and protein is an important building block in the body."
She suggested eating foods such as cereals fortified with calcium, kale and other dark leafy greens like bok choy or collard greens, sardines, fatty fish like salmon, legumes, whole grains, soy products, and nuts, which are all good sources of calcium and vitamin D.
Of course, if you're curious about embarking on a non-dairy diet of your own, speak to your doctor. I never thought I'd be able to do it, but now I barely crave dairy anymore, since the benefits outweigh the temptation.
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