What I Learned From My (Failed) Attempt To Go Dairy-Free For A Month
As a health editor and writer, I find it extremely fun and educational to explore the world of wellness by using my own body. My two most recent experiments — ditching all added sugar for the month of June and trying a week-long soup cleanse in July —proved to be surprisingly positive experiences, inspiring me to find another dietary challenge for August. So with some brainstorming help from the rest of the Swirled team, I landed on going dairy-free for a month.
Now, I’m not allergic to any dairy products, lactose intolerant or lactose sensitive. Therefore, there was no medical motivation behind this short-term elimination diet. I know that dairy is often cited as a source of inflammation and bloating, so I figured that ditching these two not-so-fun side effects as I jump back into half-marathon training couldn’t hurt. I also thought it would force me to explore other sources of healthy fats and protein in my diet since I often turn to dairy as a quick, easy and accessible source of these nutrients.
I barely made it two weeks before calling it quits.
I take my coffee with a little milk and no sugar. I can drink it black when it’s a particularly smooth brew, but I just love the way dairy milk transforms my daily cup. I genuinely look forward to it after every morning workout, and I didn’t realize how depressing it would be to remove it from my ritual. Nut milks do not create the same effect (cue gagging sounds here) and I avoid most soy products. So I was stuck drinking black coffee or brewing cup after cup of green tea to achieve the equivalent caffeine consumption, but I never found the taste I desired.
When it came to food cravings, I basically had to avoid every food I wanted. Most chocolate (even dark varieties), ice cream, my favorite baked goods and my typical go-to savory snacks all have some form of dairy in them. I follow the 80/20 rule with my eating habits, meaning I eat clean 80 percent of the time and allow myself little guilt-free indulgences the other 20 percent of the time. So while the bulk of my diet remained the same — fruits, veggies, whole grains, nuts and seeds, and lean meats and seafood — my splurge eats were very limited. And that kind of takes the fun (and balance) out of splurging, doesn’t it?
I also noticed that my digestion actually worsened rather than improved as I removed dairy from my diet, which caught me off guard. My main guess as to why this occurred is that I normally eat Greek yogurt about five times a week and it’s the primary source of probiotics in my diet. So when I eliminated that breakfast option, I also pissed off my gut bacteria. Whoops. I’d also bet that I didn’t proportionally replace the healthy fat content in my diet that I typically received from the milk in my coffee, my yogurt breakfast and my occasional sharp cheese snack.
So after two weeks of feeling tired, uncomfortable and generally uninspired by my food, I decided to bring dairy back. I broke the challenge with an iced coffee with whole milk while vacationing in Colorado, and I never felt better.
I learned my diet was surprisingly low in lactose to begin with.
Not all dairy is created equal when it comes to lactose content, which is usually the component that leads to health issues (beyond fat content when you overeat things like creamy brie, sadly). There are plenty of dairy-based foods that won’t actually lead to unpleasant symptoms for people who have a mild lactose intolerance because of their naturally low levels of lactose.
And it turns out that the dairy I usually include in my diet fits this profile. Aged cheese, yogurt and butter are all easier-to-digest, dairy-based foods that help round out a nutritionally balanced diet. Beyond this group, the milk in my coffee is a pretty minimal amount to lead to any problems, and my occasional ice cream indulgence never seems to mess with my stomach.
Long story short, I wasn’t overdoing lactose in the first place.
At the end of the day…
I gave going dairy-free the good old college try, but it just didn’t benefit my body enough for me to justify a true elimination diet. Registered dietitian Lisa Eberly recently explained to PopSugar how cutting out a food group (or more) entirely from your diet probably isn’t a good idea unless you have a food allergy, intolerance or sensitivity. And after this brief trial period of mine, I can completely understand where she’s coming from.
My body does just fine with dairy. In fact, it does more than fine. So why rock the boat?