It’s been over two months since I stopped consuming dairy products so I thought I would share my experience with you and talk about the benefits I’ve seen as well as some of my favourite dairy free items that have made the transition pretty much seamless. I’ve had quite a few questions on Twitter and YouTube as to why I stopped consuming it, what I recommend using in tea or coffee and which products work best in which scenarios. These things are very much a matter of taste, and experimentation is key when substituting things but I wanted to share what works for me, and I hope it helps those of you who were curious.
First of all, why did I quit dairy? I know these days it’s almost a trend to be cutting one food group or another, avoiding gluten, eating only raw, cutting carbs, eating high amounts of carbs, ditching fat, consuming healthy fats, going paleo…it can be baffling and dizzying to figure out what you should and shouldn’t be eating. Every single day there’s a headline telling us that the food we demonised yesterday now cures cancer – it’s pretty ridiculous and for that reason I really don’t want this post to be seen as me telling people what I think they should eat.
My reasons for ditching the dairy are really twofold – As many of you know I have been vegetarian for twenty years now and whilst around half of my recipe books are vegan I did still consume cheese and occasionally milk when it was an ingredient in food out of the house or if I had tea elsewhere. I find labels incredibly problematic (this could be a whole post in and of itself so I will try and reign myself in here in the interests of time) because there will always be some way we can improve our compassion towards other living beings and this topic can be a hotbed of arguments from people who think you’re not doing enough. I tried to make educated decisions when it came to where I got my food from, like getting eggs from family friends rather than factory farms, drinking mostly non-dairy milk in my own home and limiting my consumption of cheese but I never fastidiously checked labels or told myself I was cutting them out completely.
I would still not label myself a vegan, I honestly don’t feel any need to unless it’s an easy way to explain what meal I would like to a waitress, and I have still been using honey sometimes (although THAT issue itself is up for debate in vegan circles with independent vegan beekeepers arguing the case of sustainability – see what I mean about labels?) Who knows, in the future I may eat eggs from my friend’s pet ducks occasionally since that is not going to contribute to any industries I disagree with. The truth is, I think we are all just trying to do our best to be compassionate people and there will always be something you can improve on. You might not eat any animal products but your iPhone was likely made by workers suffering under awful conditions and you picked up some socks from Primark on your lunch break last week. Even if you don’t shop in Primark and spend more on your clothes to feel better, you’re not guaranteed to support ethical practices with even good old M&S outsourcing production to sweatshop. What about that quinoa salad you had for lunch? Was it fair trade?
The almond milk latte you had this morning – it takes a gallon of water to produce an almond, likely to be grown in California where they are experiencing record droughts, not to mention the coffee itself, how are those overseas workers treated? I think you get my point. We can analyse everything until the cows come home (pun intended) but my goal in life is to do my best. I’ve been aware of the dairy industry and it’s problems for a long time now, and whilst in the back of my mind I’ve always wanted to make changes to my diet, something recently pushed me over the edge and that thing is PCOS.
It’s no real secret that I have been suffering the effects of PCOS for years now. It could be a lot worse, it’s not exactly life threatening in and of itself but truth be told it can be pretty miserable. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve read something along the lines of “You clearly eat more than this, you’re not exactly skinny, you’re chubby” on photos of my meals and I get it, if you don’t have any kind of insulin resistance or condition that changes the way your body deals with food you probably do jump to that conclusion. My fellow PCOS sufferers will totally understand me though, and whilst like anyone else I have chocolate and takeaways once in a while, I don’t eat badly on the whole and yet still find it difficult to shift the pounds I gained when I was first diagnosed with PCOS.
Don’t mistake this for vanity alone, it’s not all about weight or appearance – PCOS sufferers are more likely to develop type 2 diabetes, endometrial cancer, heart disease and infertility and I don’t want to end up there at all. Over the past few months I’ve upped my exercise significantly and after reading some reports, ended my love affair with dairy. The jury is still out on PCOS and dairy but I wanted to give it a go – if it helped some people it might help me and as a vegetarian it gave me the kick start I needed to really face how I felt about the dairy industry, the two things seemed to go hand in hand. Of course you can still eat junk food and follow a dairy free diet (I’m looking at you Mr Kipling Treacle Tart) but in general it has made me rely much more on whole foods and enjoy cooking even more than I did. If you’ve followed my blog for any length of time you will probably know that I’m all about cooking from scratch and plant-based foods, but cutting all dairy really forces you to up your game when it comes to making everything yourself.
I originally said I would cut dairy totally until my holiday. At the time that meant four months of no dairy which I thought would give me ample time to see how I felt about it. Two months in and I’m more than likely not going to have any dairy on my holiday itself or when I return, I feel really good and feel no need to go back at all. The main changes I’ve seen so far have been in my skin, mood and waistline. At the time I cut out dairy I was in the midst of a horrendous PCOS-induced acne flareup, these were usually few and far between but had become a regular occurrence over the past six months and I had painful cystic acne all over my face even in areas I never usually had problems with like my cheeks and forehead. Since cutting dairy I’ve seen a massive change for the better and apart from the odd hormonal spot I haven’t had anything like the awful breakouts that were plaguing me.
The skin benefits have obviously really boosted my mood. We all like to think things like that don’t affect us too much but they do, nobody wants to be in pain just moving their face around to speak, so I’ve been feeling way happier and just like I’m doing the right thing for my body. It’s responding well and that feels good. I’ve lost two and a half inches from my waist, two from my hips and three from my chest/back so far. When I look in the mirror I honestly don’t see that much difference so taking measurements has really helped me to see the effect it’s had in two months alone, and I’m totally overjoyed at losing inches from my waist – this is the one area PCOS sufferers really struggle to lose fat, and the most dangerous place for anyone to store it. Seeing my waist shrink, if only when I use a measuring tape and not in the mirror yet, means weight loss with PCOS is possible. It might be slow, it might be hard, but it’s totally possible, and that small start has done wonders for my mindset. It’s easy to feel defeated when the odds are biologically stacked against you, but feeling defeated and wallowing in it (which I’ve been totally guilty of) doesn’t get you anywhere.
So yeah, a dairy free diet is really suiting me on every level right now – nutritionally, ethically, physically and mentally. Whilst the benefits are clear I know it is really daunting to a lot of people, but I promise you it’s not that hard at all, you just have to plan. My saving grace and something I would recommend to everyone is to keep your kitchen well stocked with vegan food. When I’m super hungry and there’s nothing to eat it’s the only time I’m ever tempted to stray, so I make sure there’s always something vegan there for me, in every category. Yes, that means having some ‘junk food’ around too. You’re not going to all of a sudden stop wanting ice cream, pizza, chocolate and dessert just because you’ve gone dairy free. Hormones are real, people, and if I don’t have SOME kind of chocolate in my hand when mother nature pays a visit, or I can’t have a hot chocolate after a long, hard day every once in a while it’s just not going to go well. Yes you need to read labels more and yes you will have to look a little bit harder for things you can eat but it’s all about planning.
Like most things it’s your mentality and willingness to organise yourself that dictates how easy something is going to be for you. If you head to your local corner shop expecting them to have some chocolate buttons made with coconut milk you might as well try walking on water instead. When I mention to people that I’ve stopped eating dairy they look at me aghast and say, ‘but what can you eat?’ followed by a call and response type conversation between us as they reel off foods and I nod or shake my head as enthusiastically as I can. The truth is, you can eat a lot of things, some of them healthy, some of them not so healthy, and it’s all about switching your mindset from ‘ughhh I can’t eat this, or this, or this’ and instead focusing on what you love, having fun trying new brands to replace your old dairy loves and getting creative in the kitchen. You can sit feeling sorry for yourself or you can do a quick Amazon or Ocado order, have some treats to hand and you won’t be feeling so jealous any more when your friend whips out a bar of Dairy Milk…after all you’ve got an OmBar in your bag!
Here are the products that have made my transition a piece of (dairy free) cake:
- For cups of tea – I like soy/soya milk. I know some people have health concerns with excessive consumption of soy, but nothing else cuts it for me in cups of tea and I’ve tried everything I can think of. Health is about more than just what you’re putting in your body, it’s about also enjoying your food, taking pleasure in it, at least in my opinion, and there are far worse evils than a splash of soy milk in my cup of tea. I love the unsweetened Alpro version best, or the Tesco organic one!
- For coffee – I very often drink espresso, so that’s a no brainer, but I am a big coffee person so I like to experiment with different things too. For cappuccinos and lattes I always use Koko coconut milk (not to be confused with tinned coconut milk) as it seems to froth better in my machine than almond milk does, but if I want a flavoured latte I will use the vanilla Vive Soy, occasionally even the chocolate one. I have a post on that here. I love cortado condensadas and have been experimenting with oat cream and maple syrup to replace the sweet condensed milk they traditionally use, I’ll keep you posted on that!
- For cereals and oatmeal – I like to use almond milk. I will always use that, or Koko coconut milk for oatmeal.
- For butter – There are so many spreads on the market to choose from, Vitalite and Pure are two examples. I like the olive version of Pure but right now I’m using the sunflower one and it’s nice too. I also like olive oil and ripe tomatoes rubbed into bread as a butter alternative which I first learned in Mallorca on my Spanish Exchange as a 17 year old. So so tasty.
- For cream – My favourite is Oatly cream, since it’s very neutral and goes well in curries, soups, pasta sauces and also on dessert. It’s very flexible. I also like the Alpro cream but that is only really suitable for sweet dishes, it’s great over strawberries but I stick to Oatly most of the time since it comes in carton that doesn’t need to be refrigerated till opened and it’s more versatile. Cashew nuts are also fantastic to add creaminess to any dish, just soak them in water for a few hours and blend in a food processor and let the magic happen. Coconut milk (the tinned kind) is also fantastic for rich, creamy curries but obviously only ones that benefit from the coconut flavour.
- For eggs – I love scrambled tofu with a little bit of salt, some nutritional yeast and a tiny bit of turmeric to add that familiar colour. When baking I’ve replaced with bananas, you can replace eggs and oil in store bought box cake mixes by using a can of 7up or coke depending on the cake colour (I found this out via Accidentally Vegan), and although I have yet to try this, my friend Caroline who knows her stuff recommends using flax as an egg replacer.
- For yoghurt – I’ve tried a few things. I love CoYo (made with coconut milk) and the Alpo yoghurts are not bad. What I really really miss is an unsweetened plain yoghurt for raitas, dressings and dips. It can’t be that hard to make since there are already great sweetened ones made, and there seems to be a demand if online forums are anything to go by. Come on Alpro, give the people what they want!
- For ice cream – My go to is Swedish Glace. It’s not that fancy, but you can get it everywhere, even in small Asda’s with a puny vegetarian selection, and I’ve served it to many a dairy lover in a cone without them even knowing the difference. My Dad loved it. I’ve heard great things about Booja Booja but it’s not as readily available and more expensive, and I have still yet to track down Almond Dream which is stocked in Waitrose (but not Ocado!) and bigger Morrisons stores – their salted caramel flavour is calling my name! If you’re really stuck there are plenty of ways to make your own at home, using coconut milk or by using bananas to make ‘nice cream’ – I have a peanut butter ice cream recipe here.
- For cheese – Ahhh cheese, the one thing I thought I could never live without. Well, I’m alive and it’s not so bad. I do love cheese, so I’ve been experimenting a LOT with cheesy recipes and testing out various vegan alternatives. So far I make a mean mac & cheese using nutritional yeast flakes (Matt loved it) and I have fallen head over heels for Tesco’s dairy free cream cheese with garlic and herbs – that’s one for the Boursin lovers amongst us and livens up pasta sauces or stuffed peppers too. I’ve tried Teese mozzarella cheese which was nice on a pizza (although I’ve been enjoying pizza sans cheese too) and although I’m not keen on it alone, Violife (sold in Tesco and Asda) is wonderful grated on top of pasta, on crackers with chutney and I made cheesy potato skins using it the other night that made Matt question which plate was the non-dairy version. It melted really well in my breakfast burritos and again went down well with Matt, who still eats cheddar so has a very close comparison.
- For snacks & treats – It’s super easy to get hold of Nakd bars in your local supermarket, but if you want something a little more indulgent or just interesting to try, I recommend The Vegan Kind subscription box. I’ve been subscribed for a while now and I absolutely LOVE my box every month, they are never a disappointment and I’ve tried some amazing things via them, vegan wagon wheels anyone? A lovely business who I really enjoy seeing thrive. I’ve also recently reinstated by Graze box account, after cancelling it when I moved around I realised I never set up a new order, and I’ve had three boxes now which I’ve really enjoyed. You can choose dairy free as a dietary option although it does somewhat limit what you get in the boxes I have to admit (come on Graze, it would be so easy to make your cakes and flapjacks dairy free!) they are still great and I often throw their little portioned snacks into my bag so I have something on the go. You can get your 1st, 5th and 10th box free by using FYN96Q52P.
So there we have it, I hope that was useful for those of you who expressed interest on social media and my food channel. Like I said, this is just my experience, not me trying to convince anyone that they need to do it too. For those of you who are interested in the ethical and health reasons, I recommend documentaries like Forks Over Knives, Vegucated, Cowspiracy, Food Inc, Food Matters and Earthlings as well as this talk by James Wildman and this one by Rip Esselstyn. They are all interesting viewing, but I’m just leaving this here for those of you interested to look up on your own and come to your own conclusions.
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