Dairy is a Gateway Drug (aka: The Wedding Diet, July Edition)

[For background on The Wedding Diet for the Rest of Your Life, go here.]

San Francisco, CA

So July, also known as:  The Month Without Dairy, is wrapping up.

Dairy was an interesting first item to put on the chopping block.  In some ways it was easy.  I don’t drink milk.  I rarely eat yogurt.  I don’t keep ice cream around the house.  But when I started this month, I knew that giving up cheese was going to tear me up inside.

To be clear, I’m the person who serves a five-cheese plate with accompaniments at every house party.  At our engagement party, for example, I put together a cheese tray that told our collective story based on the origin of the cheese (while balancing flavors across milk type and flavor, of course):

  • an Iowa Maytag blue to represent Liz’s home state
  • a good Midwestern cheddar to represent my origins (it can be tough to find Michigan cheese, so I substituted a Wisconsin variety)
  • an Irish gubbeen to represent Liz’s Callahan roots
  • a double cream from the Northeast as a shout-out to my time in Connecticut and Boston (again, this was another ‘regional cheat’ from Vermont), and
  • a California Cowgirl Creamery Red Hawk to symbolize where we came together

cheese story pic
We entitled it ‘our cheesy story’ (her idea)  – and it was delicious.

Despite this love of cheese, I knew the payoffs would be big if I could tackle dairy:  I remembered when I lived in Singapore a few years back and, in keeping with local food customs, I ended up eating very little dairy.  I felt fantastic.  Now this could have been the result of just being twenty-four and working out a lot, but it seemed like at least a directional indicator that there might be some traction to this no-dairy thing.

One month later, here’s what I noticed about life without dairy:

First, the biggest challenge of the month was not cheese.  (What?!)  Instead, my biggest test came when my good friend Jes (a once-and-future Californian) came to visit San Francisco and requested “California-style frozen yogurt.”  (Ahh, frozen yoghurt!  I had forgotten about you!)  Here in California we do such a good job pretending that frozen yogurt is healthy; between the tart flavor of the froyo and the fresh fruit toppings it feels like you could eat it for breakfast.  Some shops even offer to replace your frozen yogurt with Greek yogurt.  (Let’s be honest; no one gets the Greek yogurt.)  So it was not cheese, but the request for froyo that brought pain to my heart.  I will testify, however, that a bowl of fresh strawberries, mango, raspberries and blueberries with some graham crackers is not a bad substitute.  Frozen yogurt shops are just fruit shops in disguise.

My bigger realization, however, was that dairy is the ultimate accompaniment.  There are a lot of unhealthy foods that end up being unbalanced without dairy to cut the taste.  For example, my sweet potato fries were not half as awesome without the ranch dressing on the side, so I ate fewer fries.  Similarly, when they broke out the sundae bar at my friend’s wedding, I created a big ice cream-free bowl of toppings for myself.  But, quite honestly, you can only eat so many brownie bites covered in caramel before the sugar overwhelms you.  The fried, the fat, the sugar – they all end up being too much if you can’t pair it with dairy.  Thus, when I cut out dairy, I eat less of the rest of the crap.  It’s an unexpected halo effect if you can give up the dairy.  But if you cave to dairy, the rest of the unhealthy food comes piling in.  In that sense, dairy is the gateway drug.

But on the whole:
Overall feeling:  Relatively light and easy, definitely better than before
Weight change:  +/- 0 pounds
Difficulty to sustain:  Easier than expected, particularly if I could give myself a once-a-month exemption for some sort of frozen yogurt or cheese.  Or maybe I can start a rule like “The Dairy Stands Alone” so that I can eat low-fat dairy like string cheese, but not have the gateway drug effect.
Verdict:  I’m keeping this one on the list for on-going lifestyle consideration.  And I’m going to eat it only sparingly as we continue the experiment

And with that, welcome to:  August, The Month Without Sugar.

Meredith