Life After Dairy

My friend Katy has recently cut dairy products out of her diet, but it's not because she has "trendy food intolerance". These are her thoughts and feelings.

It's lunchtime again, and here I am on campus trying to decide what to eat - again. The University boasts numerous eating establishments, but even so the choice usually boils down to a filled baguette or chips. It's for this reason, despite the 'canteen' tray rail and the polystyrene cups, I end up in 'The Downs', the slightly healthier (but still serving chips) caf? on Sussex campus.

Mmm, what lovely treats are in store for me today? Well, the pasta is out, so is the korma, the selection of flans and all of the desserts.

You may be wondering what all the fuss is about and why I don't shut up now and order some chips. Well as it happens I don't eat dairy products. I'm not a vegan, I don't have radical ethics and I won't breakout in blotches, or have a seizure. It's just, for reasons that will be explained, I don't do dairy.

To be fair I could just gobble down a portion of chips, a jacket spud with beans or a salad but I like food, and good food at that. I like to eat a healthy and varied diet and I want a choice of more than 2-3 dishes, one of which is always chips.

So I wander over to the soups to see today's line-up: vegetable, carrot and coriander, courgette and cream of chicken. Nearly every day I come in here and nearly every day I ask if any of the soups are 'dairy free', and every time I get the same grumpy response, "Huh, I'll just go and check for you," says the canteen worker, as she trundles off to ask the chef. I don't really understand why they don't label the soups with those handy little 'V's or green ticks. I'm pretty sure I'm not the only one in the university's population of 10,000 who avoids dairy products.

She returns. Apparently the only soup without dairy is the vegetable. The cream of chicken was blatantly out of the question from the start and the courgette did have a distinctively 'milky' look to it. As for the carrot and coriander that was definitely dairy-free last week I remember, because I asked.

For as long as I can remember I've suffered from a constant runny nose, regular colds, sore throats and catarrh. As a child I had eczema and at the age of 15 I came down with glandular fever, which knocked me out for a good two weeks and continued to tire me for several years after that. My immune system has taken quite a battering, and since starting university the constant drinking and lack of sleep hasn't helped.

So when I decided to spend the summer in Brighton, I wasn't very surprised when severe hay fever took hold, making me sneezy, runny, itchy and generally pretty miserable.

Having suffered a similar fate for many of her young years, my grandmother decided enough was enough, and sent me off to a top allergy specialist residing on Harley Street, London. As I was used to being fobbed off by NHS doctors who'd tell me I had been suffering an unlucky number of colds, on one occasion tonsillitis, and having being prescribed nasal spray after nasal spray (which just make you sneeze even more) I was quite looking forward to my 'private health' experience.

I wasn't disappointed. Dr X was very interested in my case, which was very refreshing. (It's amazing what money can do). I explained my troubles, my symptoms and past prescriptions, and for Dr.X it all fell into place. Apparently, already prone to a runny nose and hay fever, my immune system had never really recovered from the glandular fever, and something in my diet had been suppressing my recovery. I was to have a blood test that would hopefully highlight the 'problem' foods. I would then cut them out of my diet and with luck reap the benefits.

That brings us more or less up to date. Nothing was extremely conclusive, but I was encouraged to stop eating all dairy products, including whole egg. So I did. Four months down the line and I've only suffered one cold so far this winter, avoiding the annual 'freshers' flu' that knocked out all my friends. I'm definitely less runny and sneezy, hardly itchy at all, oh yes, and I've lost two stone. This is obviously an added bonus for someone who has been on a diet since learning the meaning of the word.

What's the catch I hear you cry! Well, quite obviously a dairy free diet rules out milk, cheese, butter, eggs, yoghurt and all the foods that contain them. Yes that means chocolate, cakes, creamy sauces and dressings, selected pastas, breads and biscuits. But there are a large number of foods that one would never imagine contain dairy and an even larger amount that quite frankly shouldn't. For instance, many canned soups, pastas and sauces contain milk or egg pasta and practically all pre-packed sandwiches are made with butter or mayonnaise. What has shocked me the most since carefully studying the ingredients list of everything I eat is that some processed meats contain milk or milk powder.

Ah well, I'm not complaining. There are plenty of foods I can eat and for the first time I am enjoying guilt free consumption of those traditionally 'sinful' foods. Yes, chips are back the menu, along with those richer fruits such as olives and avocados. I enjoy the odd packet of sweets, quite a lot of dried fruit and if I ate any more houmus I would turn into a chickpea.

I feel healthier and fitter that ever before and I have never been so comfortable with my size and shape. I've definitely got used to black coffee, butterless toast and mustard instead of mayo. It's true that many shops and restaurants are yet to catch up, a drag to have to check every label and, often, say no to old favourites. As for all the people who assume I just have another 'trendy' food intolerance, that I've gone all 'Geri Halliwell' on them, well I have to explain that it's all I the name of health and that it really is working.

As for all the cynics who can't understand how on earth I could do it I can only say there is life beyond dairy.

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