In the last three years, I’ve become completely dairy-free and gluten-free as I worked to feel my best. These are two things that are popular for people to cut for multiple reasons. They can be inflammatory, which exacerbates autoimmune diseases or make you feel badly, but cutting them is also a way to help people cut calories by removing processed foods from their diets. I don’t espouse that they are wholesale evil or problematic for everyone, but for some people trying life without them is a worthwhile experiment. I thought I’d share a little more about mine.
For starters, from the time I was two, I had a diagnosed milk allergy. I was extremely limited on the dairy I could eat as a kid and though I remember some cheese, it was fewer and further between than most kids. As I became more independent and older, I generally ignored this personal history. I knew that if I had something like lasagna or ice cream I’d start coughing almost immediately and my stomach would hurt, but I’d recover and repeat. And I loved cheese as much as anyone. That’s about how I subsisted until my mid 30s when paleo became all the craze and was the food approach of the day in Crossfit circles.
Intuitively, the approach of focusing on whole foods and cutting grains and dairy felt right to me. Without a lot of facts, I started skewing that way, cooking paleo food for myself, baking paleo goods and seeking a leaner post baby body. I never really got leaner, but I felt pretty good. Overtime though with a culture of “cheat meals” the milk and allowances still crept in to my weekly routine. On vacations or meals out, I’d enjoy it and not worry about it. I didn’t feel that badly either. At least not that I remember… I did do a couple of Whole30s and the re-introduction phase confirmed that dairy was a problem. A HUGE PROBLEM. But it didn’t seem like gluten was, so after that I focused on keeping most dairy out, and didn’t worry about grains. But I’ll acknowledge there was still some dairy along the way. I mean, I’m a Texas girl who loves queso. That didn’t count in my book, and when we went to France a couple of years ago, and I had cheese every single day.
That seemed fine for me until I was about 41. I honestly don’t know if I got more sensitive to dairy from keeping it out of my diet, which some scientists hypothesize happens because your gut biome changes, or it could be that I became radically more aware of how dairy made me feel as exposure points became fewer and farther between. But I kept testing it here and there because again, cheese, and I kept thinking I should be able to eat Greek yogurt or goat whey or casein or goat cheese or Parmesan. You name it, I’d still test it because it was all in the vein of these healthy-ish options that work fine for other people. Until finally I realized the consequences of these individual exposures were more than I wanted to deal with. After an ounce of cheese, I’d be bloated and uncomfortable for about seven days. My weight easily spikes up four pounds if I eat some dairy, and I finally decided it wasn’t worth it. That was about 18 months ago, and though I’ve accidentally had a little when there was some in a protein bar that I did label read closely enough or in some dark chocolate that wasn’t truly dark chocolate, I can honestly say I feel so much better it is worth it to me. I’m firmly committed to this as a long-term need and plan.
Also being dairy-free is so much easier now than it was several years ago. For the most part I don’t try to replace the cheese I miss with vegan options or fake alternatives, but I do like some coconut milk or almond milk in my coffee. You should have seen the lengths I would go to in an effort to get coconut milk for my coffee when on business trips before Starbucks had anything but soy milk. It was a little ridiculous.
Being gluten-free is a much more recent development, and honestly my experience has made me more apt to ask clients to consider it – especially if they are coping with thyroid issues, PCOS, stalled progress (when everything else is in place) or GI distress. In December, my thyroid was starting to run low and in an effort to get things back on track, my doctor had me adapt a few lifestyle approaches including reducing training intensity, sleeping more and going gluten-free. For gluten he wanted me to do a 30-day elimination and reintroduction experiment, so that’s exactly what I did from about mid-January to mid-February.
Again being gluten-free now is easier than ever. For Jeff’s birthday treats, we could buy gluten-free flour and do a 1:1 replacement in the recipes without even blinking. For our daily food, I already wasn’t eating a ton of it. I just had to switch up tortillas on taco night and be more diligent about what I’d eat out. I mean when you’re at a family gathering in Texas that’s a BBQ and the family provided desserts, if you’re dairy-free and gluten-free you can pretty much eat nothing. I had a whole lot of brisket and strawberries that day as I recall. But you know what? The next day I felt fine. And the day after. That was worth it.
When it was time to reintroduce gluten, I made a batch of whole wheat pancakes from scratch. I picked this for a couple of reasons. Since I knew the ingredients I could be sure it was really gluten I was reacting to if anything. Also who doesn’t love a giant batch of pancakes? It was much less dramatic than my reaction to dairy, but it was not good. I had minor bloating, but mostly I felt achy. Achy all over for days. I was in denial, so I eliminated again and reintroduced again. Same. So that’s it. That was the end of gluten.
Our sensitivities change over time and can be brought out by stress, age and other health factors. My doctor said my issue was non-celiac gluten intolerance, which was probably made worse by overtraining and aging. Though we didn’t officially test the dairy, I suspect it’s still a straight up allergy based on the extent my reactions to it.
I honestly believe that people should evaluate these things for themselves and see if it helps them feel better if they are having some of the issues I have noted above. There’s no reason to eliminate them just for the sake of doing so, and cutting them does force major food changes, which for many means a significant improvement in overall food quality, provided you don’t just stock up on gluten-free, dairy-free frankenfoods. Seriously it eliminates pizza, mac and cheese, burgers, queso and so many other go tos in our carb-dense, calorie-dense world, which are good things to cut for reasons far beyond the dairy and gluten components of the food. If you want to get serious about it because you’re coping with undiagnosed symptoms, eliminations and reintroduction as well as medical testing is the way to go. And if you’ll go to those lengths and know how it is affects or benefits you, you’ll be more committed to living that lifestyle than you ever would be because you read an article or someone at the gym told you it was a good idea.