Before the end of high school, I didn’t really think much about what I ate. I was cursed with an abominable sweet tooth but blessed with a nice metabolism so the two sort of canceled each other out. I loved ice cream and pasta and hated cantaloupe which my mom once made me eat in exchange for a Backstreet Boys CD (anything for you, Nick Carter). Food had never been an issue for me and I never really felt the need to really think about what I was putting into my body. Unfortunately, this all changed as senior prom and graduation loomed near.
I began to notice around the spring of my senior year of high school that after dinner, I would feel sick, bloated, and just downright uncomfortable. At first, I ignored these symptoms as I thought that maybe I had just eaten too much and should be a little more conscious at the next meal.
Weeks went by and I saw the symptoms worsened. The worst being after eating pizza during a class party. The two slices of pizza I had eaten had caused me to double over during English class. I thought I was dying, the cramps were like nothing I had ever experienced before. At this point, I still didn’t even think to consider that maybe it was a pattern and not individual foods that made me sick.
Finally, prom arrived and the feelings of being sick after every meal did not leave. My prom group had dinner before the dance at one of our favorite Italian restaurants. Having dinner there ensured that we would all be indulging in a lot of cheese. I was no exception to this and enjoyed my free prom dinner and went to the dance.
As usual, I began to feel sick, bloated, and all around gross. My out-of-character flamingo pink prom dress started to feel a little tight and it finally dawned on me that maybe it wasn’t normal to feel sick after every meal.
I began to monitor what I ate and how it made me feel. I quickly realized that I had developed a lactose intolerance. A devastating blow to the ever constant presence of Blue Bell ice cream in my freezer. To make matters worse, I was having my wisdom teeth removed shortly after graduation. What was I going to eat now? Pretty much everything available that I was allowed to eat post op included some form of dairy. I had almost no time to figure out what I could and couldn’t eat and experiencing the strangest feeling of having a stomach ache while also being hungry only made my new project all the more urgent.
I discovered lactose-free ice cream and my mom learned how to make dairy-free mashed potatoes so I wouldn’t be starving after the surgery. I also learned that smoothie shops are usually able to make smoothies without milk products. I was so happy to know that getting my wisdom teeth out wouldn’t be as bad as I had imagined because I was going to have something to eat.
Apart from only being able to eat soft foods for over a week, the adjustment to not eating dairy was somewhat difficult. I had grown up eating food that I could no longer eat, I had to completely revamp my diet. I was surprised by how many of the foods I had enjoyed included dairy and were no longer safe for me to eat. Finding out that Oreos are vegan made this adjustment a little bit better but it didn’t fully replace all the fun cookies I had learned to bake and enjoyed baking (and eating) over the years.
Along with a bunch of fun new recipes, I learned a lot about the condition itself. Lactose intolerance is caused by a lactase enzyme deficiency in the small intestine. This enzyme helps the body to digest ‘lactose” which is the special milk sugar. It is incredibly common to develop an intolerance later in life as lactase enzymes levels decrease. Lactose intolerance in most common in women and especially women of color. Often it is difficult to confidently diagnose someone as lactose intolerance because the severity of the intolerance varies and there isn’t one true test as there is for celiac disease also known as a gluten intolerance. An intolerance to dairy can be temporary or lifelong, the effects and severity of the intolerance always depend on the individual.
Almost three and half years later, I am still adjusting. Luckily I have found swallowable lactase pills so I am able to sometimes enjoy foods that I miss. Cheese is probably one of the worst things for me and I can’t even believe how gross the concept of cheese truly seems now. There are some days when I ignore my dietary restriction and enjoy something from my childhood but these days are not without consequence. The intolerance has decreased in severity but is still present.
I am still learning how to cook for myself and I definitely should continue as I eat way too much spaghetti that it is not even funny. In college, I have made several female friends who also suffer my lactose intolerance and together we reminisce about eating ice cream. I don’t think I will ever be able to eat dairy without feeling sick but I know that it will only get easier and I will be able to find more and more things that I enjoy that I can eat without worrying about how it’ll make me feel afterward.