By Jodie Free
Growing up, I doubt there were many days when my meals didn’t feature meat, dairy or eggs. I hardly knew any vegetarians, let alone vegans, and I was puzzled by how they would find anything to eat—especially anything dairy-free.
As an adult I’ve become more educated about different dietary requirements. We seem to be in a time where people either have more food intolerances or are more aware of them, and many restaurants and grocery stores offer meat-, gluten- or dairy-free alternatives. But I never thought about changing my own diet until I realized I was lactose intolerant.
In early 2013, I caught Norovirus, which causes gastroenteritis. I was on Christmas break from grad school and visiting my family in England, and there was an outbreak of infection at the time. I spent a week vomiting, consuming only water and juice, and watching the entire series of “Gossip Girl” while lolling on my parents’ couch. My stomach, which was once overjoyed by Indian curries, remained sensitive even months after I had recovered. I started to have intense cramps at night when I was trying to sleep.
I did some research, and found out that stomach infections can sometimes damage the intestinal lining, preventing the body from making lactase, the enzyme that breaks down lactose. Lactase deficiency can also intensify with age, and perhaps as many as 1 in 5 people suffer from lactose intolerance.
I was a little hysterical at first at the idea of giving up dairy, but after the first month, I found that the cramps were gone, my skin looked a lot better, and I rarely felt bloated or too full. Being dairy free forced me to make healthier choices when I was eating out (tip: it’s much easier to navigate the menu of Thai/Chinese restaurants than, say, Italian or Southern) and I actually stopped missing it after a few months. My intolerance is mild, so I could probably start introducing it back if I wanted to, but I am much happier this way.
Please know that I’m not advocating that everybody give up dairy because I say so. But if you think you may have a sensitivity, I think it’s worth giving it a try. A common concern is calcium deficiency, but there are other foods besides milk products which provide calcium (spinach, soy, beans, broccoli and oily fish to name a few). You may have some trouble at first—and believe me, a lot of people will corner you with “just a little” cheese at dinner or parties—but for me it has been completely worth it, no question.
The trick with replacing dairy is to use different milk substitutes for different situations. Here are some of my favorites:
This is the milk alternative that people seem to be most familiar with. Soy milk has a distinct earthy taste, and it’s rich and filling. I mainly use soy for drinking: vanilla soy milk is good in coffee, as the base for a latte (so amazing with Chai!) or for chocolate milk. It’s pretty versatile, though, so you can use it for cooking, but it might have a noticeably soy taste depending on the recipe.
Almond milk is mild and sweet. I like it best vanilla-flavored and unsweetened, in banana-based smoothies or over cereal. Coffee shops are increasingly offering it as an alternative to soy, but I personally find it to be too weak to complement coffee. My favorite store brand is Silk, but you can also make it at home.
Coconut milk is often sold in two ways: in a carton, or in a can. I buy the carton variety for smoothies, and cans of light coconut milk for cooking (available in Asian food aisles). You may also find coconut creamer for coffee (So Delicious brand), but that doesn’t seem to be as widely available, at least where I live in the South.
Full fat coconut milk is also a great dessert substitute. You may not believe me when I say this, but I actually prefer coconut milk whipped cream. It is so delicious, and can be used in so many recipes! It works for cream pies, trifles, tiramisu, mousses, cake frosting, you name it. (Or for eating with a spoon, just saying.) Chill a can in the fridge overnight, reserve the liquid, then whip the coconut cream with vanilla extract and sugar.
Store-Bought Vegan Cheese
I really only buy Daiya vegan cheese if I NEED pizza. Of course, it doesn’t taste exactly like the real thing, but it’s a decent substitute. Speaking of pizza, did you know that you can order one without the cheese? Tofutti Cream Cheese is there for you if you can’t live without cream cheese and bagels—I use it with confectioners sugar as a topping for vegan carrot or red velvet cakes.
I’d caution against buying store-bought vegan cheese every week, as it’s a processed food. Some products do contain casein, which is a milk protein, so be sure to read the label.
Homemade Vegan Cheese
In the interest of full disclosure, I should tell you that I have never actually gathered the courage to make my own vegan cheese. But, it is possible! I was admittedly unaware of that fact in itself, B.N. (Before Norovirus). Check out One Green Planet’s 10 Vegan Cheeses—and please tell me how you like them!
Nutritional yeast is kind of cheesy, so it can be used to make a sauce, like in Tone It Up’s Green Bean Casserole recipe. It has, well, a yeasty taste, but I think it suits certain recipes. My fiancé will not accept as a way to make macaroni, so know that it’s not necessarily a crowd pleaser.
Earth Balance tastes exactly like regular margarine. I don’t even bother to warn house guests away from it because there’s basically no difference. Like margarine, it’s not low in calories or fat, so don’t go too wild. I eat it on bread, or use it for cooking and baking. Earth Balance is sometimes available in baking sticks rather than tubs, but my small town doesn’t carry them anywhere—I’ve used regular tubs for making cookies/cakes and they’ve turned out fine.
Is there anything coconut oil can’t do? There are lots of dairy free recipes out there that use coconut oil instead of butter. I always use it to cook pancakes.
Applesauce can often be used in place of butter (and/or sugar) in recipes, especially cakes, such as the Applesauce Molasses Cake. It provides a moist texture and consistency. It’s super easy to make at home, too!
Whey protein—the one you most often see at places like Walmart—is a no-no for a dairy-free diner. Luckily, there are lots of vegan protein powders out there, such as hemp, brown rice and pea. My favorite brand is Sunwarrior.
You may struggle to say goodbye to milk chocolate. (Actually, it’s the one food I give in and eat sometimes. I cry about the cramps later, but it’s worth it.) The good news is that you can eat dark chocolate! Yay! (Go buy some Chocolove. Seriously.) Do make sure to read the label, as some cheaper brands of dark chocolate still contain milk products. For baking, know that Enjoy Life Chocolate Chips are soy, nut and dairy free, so they cover all your bases if you have other food allergies to consider.
Tofu is pretty scary looking at first. But it’s also versatile, and it can be a dairy substitute as well as a meat substitute. Silken tofu, which is softer and milder than firm tofu, can be used to make puddings or added to smoothies. I am all about some lemon mousse, such as these Little Lemon Pots.
A Note On Goat & Sheep Milk
Because there is less lactose in goat and sheep milk than in cow’s milk, a lot of people can digest them more easily. Since I’m only dairy-free for health reasons I do consume small amounts of feta and goat cheese, and goat milk. I don’t love the taste of goat milk on its own, but it is the only thing that has a similar taste/consistency to cow’s milk—which means I can drink tea with a splash of milk like I’ve had all my life! I felt very un-British in the months before I had discovered goat milk.
Helpful links on lactose intolerance and leading a dairy-free lifestyle:
Are you a dairy-free diner? Share your thoughts and recipes in the comments or tweet us @LitDarling!
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