I was on a healthy eating kick, eating yogurt every day, using low fat milk on my cereal, and treating myself to the occasional snack of high quality cheese. At a high risk for osteoporosis, I thought my daily (or more) yogurt was the ticket to healthy bones and with all the fabulous new flavors and new varieties of Greek yogurts I was happily spooning the stuff down my gullet.
But I felt and looked awful. I was red and scaly with eczema and the itching was unbearable. I had dark circles under my eyes that no amount of cover up would disguise. Worst of all, my asthma was flaring and I was struggling to get it under control.
My sister, the health nut, suggested I try eliminating dairy. She claimed her own skin issues were now gone, and she felt better than she ever had. I resisted because I had, like most of us, been taught that dairy is the best source of calcium, it’s good for everyone, and to remove it would condemn me to a life of brittle, shrinking bones. In the end I felt so awful and itchy that I decided to give it a try.
If you want to test if dairy is a problem for you, an elimination diet is the first step.
The Elimination Diet:
Before making any drastic changes to your diet you should consult with your doctor. Be prepared to list your symptoms, what foods you think may be triggering them, and any family history of allergies.
1. Stop eating dairy: Remove all dairy from your diet. Milk, cheese, yogurt, and cream are the easy to spot culprits. Just don’t put them in your mouth.
The hard part is finding dairy in unexpected places. You will have to read food labels carefully, dairy pops up in the strangest places. Beware the term non-dairy! Non-dairy cream has milk protein, as well as many non-dairy cheeses. Luckily for us, veganism has become more popular; if a label says Vegan, you can safely assume it is dairy-free. This article is a handy resource for identifying dairy in foods.
2. Keep a food diary: Record everything you eat. Every bite, every sip, and even that little nibble you took while cooking! In addition to the food you are eating you should also record your symptoms and your general well being.
Yes, I know this step is tedious, but these weeks of recording everything you eat and how you feel without dairy in your diet may provide you and your doctor important clues to your health.
3. Slowly add dairy back into your diet: You may be anxiously anticipating this step because you miss your ice cream, or you may be dreading it if you have begun to feel better in the last few weeks. But this is when you can really learn how your body reacts to dairy, good or bad.
Simply begin eating or drinking small amounts of your favorite dairy products, increasing your intake each day.
It is very important here to keep that food diary and track your symptoms. After you eat that grilled cheese sandwich does your rash come flaring back? Do your ears itch? Reaching for that rescue inhaler more frequently? Or is your digestive track doing unspeakable things? None or some of these things may happen immediately or they may take a few days to pop up. Write them down!
If your symptoms had subsided and are now returning, you and your doctor may conclude that dairy is the culprit. If, on the other hand, there was no change in your symptoms on or off dairy it is likely not the source of your problems.
If you do conclude that dairy is a problem for you the next steps are the beginning of your new dairy free lifestyle!
4. Stop eating dairy, again: If your symptoms had lessened, or even disappeared when you were off dairy and reappeared when you reintroduced it, you will probably be relieved to remove it once again. Knowing you will feel better without that glass of milk is a huge incentive in the face of what may seem to be a difficult choice.
5. Replace those nutrients: Remember you still need calcium and other vitamins and minerals found in dairy. Check out my guide for easy and natural sources here.
I was lucky and within a week of starting my elimination diet I felt like a whole new person. Not everyone’s food allergies are quite so clear, and often your doctor will have you eliminate more than dairy, and may ask you to stop eating gluten, eggs, soy and nuts. The process of eliminating and reintroducing will be longer, but in the end, the reward of feeling and looking better will make it all worthwhile.