The Struggles, Trials and Tribulations of being “Lactose Sensitive.” Plus, my favourite dairy alternative necessities.

My whole life I have been a milk lover.  Cheese, butter, ice cream (*sigh*). Yes, when asked the hypothetical question: If I was stranded on a desert island, and could only have one food group for the rest of my life, what would it be?  I would choose dairy. I lived this way happily without any interference until I was 21.  I can’t say that this was a direct cause by any means, but during this time I decided to try one of the very trendy ‘teatoxes,’ which I ordered from Australia.  For a month I ate completely vegan while consuming the morning tea 30 minutes before breakfast and the nighttime cleanse every other evening as per the instructions. To be honest, I liked it.  The morning tea tasted lovely and gave me energy.  By the time I finished the course, my skin was clear and I seemed to be less bloated.

Once I finished the teatox, I packed my bags and headed to Italy for a month-long first century Roman archaeological dig in Vagnari, Italy (not far from Bari). Being on an archaeological dig, food was provided.  Not only that, but I was in beautiful Italy and probably drank my weight in authentic Italian cappuccinos.  Every evening, our team was provided with pasta dish, fantastic pizza and decadent desserts (gelato, ohh gelato). Lunch was generally a selection of meats, cheeses and salads.  There was only one problem, I began to feel progressively sick every night, more sluggish and generally fed up.  There were times I would break down and begin to cry and I couldn’t understand why I felt so emotional.  The only thing I could think of was that I was becoming worn out by 5 am mornings, diggings in the warm southern Italian sun and the nights on the town that I certainly was not use to.  My stomach began to turn, and (sorry, but not sorry) I would painfully wait until everyone had left the apartment building for the evening to use the bathroom.

When I returned to my home in France, for the final month of summer before the final year of my undergraduate degree, I expected to do nothing but rest and sleep off all of the hard work.  For my return, we ate decadent meals in the garden, dining on French cheeses, croissants, pastries, baguettes, grilled sausages; Any traditional summer french meal, we made and thoroughly enjoyed. But still, a few hours later, I began to feel sick.  First tired and inexplicably grumpy, then nauseated, crampy and bloated. I would end up curling up on the couch for hours.  To try and combat this, I decided to have a food cleanse and basically went back to being vegan.  “Maybe that teatox flushed out your ability to handle something,” questioned my mother.

It took me ages to figure out what it might be.  Being in my final year of my undergraduate, I decided to just focus and eat vegan for that year.  I put off trying to figure out what it was until I was finished.  A whole year I ate vegan, and, again, I quite liked it.  I have always been a person to find recipes that I like and to tweak them until I love them. The only difficult part of it was to try get enough protein to meet my fitness goals.  However, if I decided to try eating a full diet again, even for one evening for a meal out with family or what-have-you, the sluggishness, grumpiness and general sick feeling returned.

Once I finished my degree, I went to speak to the doctor as to why this may have changed in my life.  She sent me to a gastrologist and took a blood sample.  The gastrologist didn’t seem to question the teatox much, but created a whole line-up of tests. She tested a lot of my symptoms separately.  I was tested for diabetes, an inability to process fat properly (my first thought as to what the issue might be), the same with protein and I even had a colonoscopy to make sure I hadn’t developed any type of cancer.  Nothing, all negative (luckily).  But what was the issue? On top of it all, the blood test came back to show that my year long meat-free diet had left me seriously depleted of iron.  I was told that I was lucky they caught it when they did or I would have become anaemic.

I finally went to my first hydrogen breath test before they could say that I had a severe overgrowth of bad bacteria in my small intestine (SIBO).  This was something that I could treat but would likely come back throughout my life. However, as they said, it should have made me feel sick all the time.  Since it didn’t, it was reacting to something.  So, slowly, one food group at a time, I added things back into my diet to see what made me feel sick (while being prescribed Buscopan- something I would seriously recommend to anyone with IBS or stomach related food sensitivities).  I knew I was okay with fruit and veg, as I had no issue eating vegan.  Next was fish- fine.  Meat- fine. Milk- surprise, surprise- not fine.  After another hydrogen breath test, they found that I was reacting to some sort of sugar.  For my third and final breath test- I thought I knew the answer.  I was so certain it would come back positive for lactose intolerance.  “The test was negative,” said the doctor, “A little shocked?” I definitely was.  However, as she explained, it was not necessarily that my body could not break down lactose but that it had a very difficult time doing it, all the while the SIBO condition would flare up.

It took me two years to find out what was wrong with my diet. However, it made me think- How many people suffer from something similar and do nothing about it? I try to rarely use the Buscopan (only for special occasions) since, at the end of the day, my body does not like lactose. This whole experience taught me how important it is to listen to our bodies.  Since cutting out lactose based products from my life (and yes! I have been able to find happy alternatives 🙂 ) I no longer feel sluggish, nauseated, crampy or grumpy (a very good thing for those who are forced to spend time with me).

I have spent years trying to find alternatives to dairy.  My first issue was whey protein. Even being ‘sugar free,’ there must be enough lactose or some byproduct in whey that contributes to me not feeling very well.  I’ve tried brown rice proteins (it’s basically insoluble and tastes like you are drinking sand), vegan protein blends (I could not stand the taste of SunWarrior vegan protein blend, nor the price), and soy protein.  At first I tried myprotein.com’s Vanilla Soy Protein.  It was nice, but they didn’t sell it in big enough bags and I kept having to do constant reorders (for when I was on school vacations or summer break, it took three weeks to have it shipped to France).  Then I switched to their unflavoured soy protein (which you can get in 2.5 kilo bags) adding their  flavour drops.  This was certainly not a pleasant experience for straight shake drinking, but it was manageable for a while.  Finally, I stopped drinking shakes altogether but I was having to eat about 5-6 chicken breasts a day (very expensive).

At the minute, since I am residing the UK, you can have a myprotein orders sent overnight.  As you can see from most of my recipes, soy protein is just as good in cooking and baking as whey protein and even most flours. The myprotein Strawberry Cream Soy Protein is the nicest to drink on its own (and is great in a smoothie with Koko Coconut milk and frozen strawberries).  This is seconded by the Chocolate Smooth Soy Protein (also great in a smoothie with peanut butter, a small amount of Options Belgian hot cocoa and Koko coconut milk).  Both of these are better than the Vanilla Soy Protein in my opinion.

The next trial I went through was milk.  I have tried every dairy alternative milk on the market. My favourite everyday milk is the Koko coconut milk. It is great in everything.  Coconut is just great in general.  You can get coconut yogurts (preferred brand: Coyo) and can use coconut cream for curries and desserts.  You can 1:1 substitute coconut oil for butter (making it easy to change traditional recipes into ones that are lactose-free friendly). However, I will say that soy milk is one of the best for coffee.  This is convenient since most coffee places will have soy milk as an option.  As much as I was not a Starbucks fan before I became lactose sensitive, they do make a killer Soy Milk Latte and their English Breakfast Tea blend particularly suits soy milk as well. However, if you are planning on using Soy Protein, I would suggest using Koko coconut milk or almond milk to mix in smoothies.  I’ve found that if you use soy milk, there is a particular ‘soy taste’ that comes through. At the same time, if this subtle taste doesn’t bother you, soy milk is generally the creamiest. Almond milk is good for smoothies and cereal, but I can’t stand it in coffee or tea.  All of these are indistinguishable in baking.  Another brand that I have recently tried is the Arla LactoFree Semi-Skimmed milk.  Now, I haven’t had ‘real’ milk in a long time but I will say that this tasted just like regular milk.  If you are looking for a dairy free alternative, this wouldn’t fit the bill as it is still dairy! But if you are a traditional milk lover who can no longer have lactose- Arla’s LactoFree range if fantastic.  They even do whole milk, cream and fantastic cheese (see below). 

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My favourite butter alternatives are, of course, coconut oil along with Pure Dairy Free Sunflower spread.  Pure can also be used in a 1:1 ratio, it contains a load of vitamins and has a lovely ‘buttery’ taste (great on toast).  Most importantly, it is free from GM ingredients, hydrogenated oils, artificial additives, emulsifiers, soy and gluten.

The next, and most difficult, was cheese.  The only real totally dairy free ‘cheese’ recipe that I liked was one made from cashews and miso soup paste (I will certainly post the recipe soon). I have been unable to find a ready to buy vegan cheese that I truly liked (except for Tesco’s FreeFrom Cream Cheese).  That is, until I gave Arla’s Lactofree brand a try.  Now, I don’t know how I was getting by without their Lactofree Cheddar.  It is fantastic.  I am not as much of a fan of their generic “Lactofree Cheese” (it’s tasteless), but their cheddar is meltable and tastes like a regular strong cheddar. My other favourite is the Philadelphia Lactose Free Cream Cheese.  I’m pretty sure it is relatively new but there is zero taste difference from this and real Philadelphia.  I use this in a number of recipes including Cheesecake (along with Coyo coconut yogurt), Mac n Cheese and icings for Low Carb Carrot Cupcakes.

Finally, I will soon post my completely dairy free Creamy Banana Peanut Butter ice cream recipe.  Suitable for those who are lactose sensitive and vegan.  Great with dark chocolate chips, fruit compote, or on top of any number of baked goods!  Outside of this, and sorbet, ice cream (in the traditional creaminess of vanilla and chocolate) is one I am having a difficult time finding a really good substitute for that is ready to buy.  Tesco once had a chocolate coconut based ice cream that was fantastic.  Creamy, chocolate-y- it ticked all the boxes, but I don’t think they carry it anymore.  I only bought it the one time, so I don’t even know what brand it is. Hopefully, this will make its way to the people who head Tesco, they will remember it and bring it back! 

I’m pretty sure that covers all the main dairy food necessities for cooking, baking, smoothie-ing and general living!  Let me know if you think I’ve left anything out.  Does anyone else have a dairy sensitivity or those who just prefer to stay away from dairy? What are some of your favourite alternatives? I’d love to know so I can try them!

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About Mara

Hi there! I'm an American gal who fell in love with an English fella. I am in love with home style, seasonal decor and some serious DIYs! Follow my home journey through building furniture, creating a homey space from scratch and collecting inspiration from my travels!

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