5 things I learnt on a dairy-free diet

Up until now I've been lucky enough to have never needed to go on a 'something-free' diet (as in gluten-free, dairy-free, sugar-free...). Enter colicky baby. For the past couple of month I have been trialing a dairy-free diet to see if there is a chance my breastfed bub has some form of intolerance to cows' milk.  I live in a household that usually goes through around 6L of milk each week, plus a tub of yoghurt, plus (let's not mention how much) chocolate. To say this has been a challenge would be putting it lightly.

As a dietitian, 'Operation: Dairy Free Me' has been an eye opening experience. Cutting out dairy products has been a challenging task, but to put a positive spin on things, I've been able to see it as a chance to put myself into a client's shoes. The experience has allowed me to add another layer of understanding of what an individual has to go through when having to cut out certain foods for medical reasons, for example when investigating food allergy/intolerance or coeliac disease.

Here are 5 things I learnt about going on a 'something-free' diet. These are things I thought I knew, but now I really know, you know?

Planning is crucial

 It is possible to make delicious food on a restricted diet, but it takes a bit of time and planning. 

It is possible to make delicious food on a restricted diet, but it takes a bit of time and planning. 

My first few dairy free days were challenging. Suddenly there were far fewer options in the cupboard at home and the initial novelty of learning to eat without dairy wore off quickly. The fact that dairy is an ingredient in most packaged foods left little in the pantry that I could munch on. I was craving foods that were now a no-go and was, in a sense, mourning the loss of some of my favourite foods.

To be able to enjoy eating on a 'something-free' diet will take planning and consideration. Deciding spontaneously to cut out an entire food group from your diet between breakfast and lunch is just unrealistic. You need to act like a scout and be prepared with alternatives products, recipes and snack ideas. Coming up with suitable meal and snack alternatives is definitely possible, but requires planning prior to hitting the supermarket as well as major label scrutiny while shopping.

You'll need to channel your inner detective

For a few nights during my dairy-free adventure I was making the mistake of having a certain bakery's fruit bread as an evening sweet treat. When it suddenly occurred to me to double check the ingredients, I looked them up online and sure enough milk solids were in the list. Then I made a rookie error in assuming that because one brand's 70% dark chocolate is dairy free, that another brand's 86% dark chocolate is too. Lesson learnt - assume nothing and check the ingredients every time.

If it's easy for a nutritionist to make these simple mistakes, I can only imagine the frustration of having to check every little food item for someone who's career isn't dedicated to food. You have to check everything otherwise you get caught out. This can mean added time to shopping, meal planning and cooking. Knowing your way around a food label can be tricky too if you are not used to reading them.

It's not as simple as swapping A for B

Yoghurt would usually feature regularly in my diet, so when I switched to eating dairy free, I grabbed a tub of coconut yoghurt to try instead. While taste-wise this was a pretty good swap, nutrient-wise it is a very different product - no calcium, much lower protein content and much higher fat content.

This is where the importance of seeking professional guidance comes into play. Just because there is an alternative dairy-free product available it doesn't mean it will provide you with similar nutrients. For example, not all milk alternatives (soy, oat, almond, rice, etc.) are enriched with calcium. In order to ensure you are still getting important nutrients that your body needs, you may need to enlist the help of a Dietitian.

You're going to need to speak up

"What non-dairy milk alternatives do you have?"
"Are any of your baked goods dairy free?"
"Can I get that without butter or cheese please?"

I cringed as I asked these questions at different cafes/restaurants over the past couple of months. Heaven forbid I should actually make any special requests as I hand over money to these businesses right?! A more assertive person probably would not even think twice about having to ask these questions, but for me this was a real struggle. I didn't like feeling like I was that customer.

Eating out on a 'something-free' diet is not as simple and requires a certain amount of assertiveness - you are going to have to ask questions about menu items and possibly request small changes to them. It also requires a high degree of trust that a) the person behind the counter actually knows what is in the food they are serving, and b) they know what gluten free/dairy free/soy free etc actually means. Luckily there are more and more cafes and restaurants catering to special diets these days.

Sharing meals can be discouraging.

Food envy takes on a whole new meaning when you are on a 'something-free' diet. No matter how supportive your family/friends are, you can't expect them to restrict themselves too, especially when eating out or on special occasions. Planning ahead to make sure there are some appealing options available when dining with others can take the sting out of sitting across from someone who is gulping down the food you can't have.

These points may seem pretty straight forward, but by experiencing them first hand I have gained a deeper understanding and hope to be able to provide better counselling, more practical advice and deliver a more optimal outcome for future clients. Do you have any further insights about going on a 'something-free' diet? I'd love for you to share them in the comments below!

 One of my 'survival' dairy-free foods

One of my 'survival' dairy-free foods

Here are some of the foods that helped me keep sane/satisfied chocolate cravings while eating dairy-free