85. Dairy-Free Queen

85. Dairy-Free Queen

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Shaping the New You


Poets have been mysteriously silent on the subject of cheese.
 ~Gilbert K. Chesterton

Tears drenched my cheeks as I traveled the short distance home from the allergist. The shocking news made all the sense in the world, but my mind refused to accept it. Me, an asthmatic at the age of thirty-two? The dentist, wary about my long list of drug allergies, had insisted I see an allergist before he dared administer Novocain.

That morning in the allergist’s office, after answering pages of questionnaires, the nurses had pricked and prodded me. All for a Novocain problem? Then, the breathing tests. The nurse had shaken her head and urged me to try harder the second time. I managed just under 70 percent. She explained, “Your history of bronchitis and double pneumonia this past year was a red flag for asthma. Now we’ve confirmed it. The good news is that you have no allergy to Novocain.”

Good news? Good grief!

The nurse armed me with antihistamines and inhalers for my mold, dust mite and cat allergies. The inhaler did relieve the tightness in my chest. For the first time in a year, I felt like I could take deep breaths. Amazing that I’d gotten used to a lack of oxygen in my blood. No wonder I wanted to collapse on the couch each evening after long days with my two preschoolers.

Questions bombarded my brain. Would I always have to take medicine? Would I continue to suffer from pneumonia and bronchitis? What about our health insurance? I envisioned myself carting around an oxygen tank on my back with plastic tubes running to my nose. Would I get better?

With medication and slight changes to my environment, my health improved dramatically in a few weeks. I adjusted to the idea of taking medicine and got on with my life. Advice poured in from well-meaning family and friends, but only one comment stuck. My friend Dana shared the recommendation from her naturopath who had recently treated her young children suffering from chronic ear infections and colds. He removed all dairy foods from their diet and within weeks, they all regained their health. Without dairy products, they remained perfectly healthy.

As a child, I had some food allergies but outgrew them. I never enjoyed drinking milk, but loved ice cream, yogurt and cheese. I parked the information Dana shared with me somewhere in my memory, but didn’t really give it much attention. Give up ice cream? That would be a bit drastic!

Within months, we found ourselves moving our worldly belongings across the ocean to live in The Netherlands, my husband’s home-land. At the Dutch family doctor, I received ongoing treatment for my asthma, which seemed to be worsening in spite of our new mold and mildew-free living environment. About every three months, I came down with a new case of bronchitis. Instead of searching for the cause of my downward spiral, the doctor only increased the strength of my inhalers.

After a frustrating year, a nurse friend warned me, “Your lungs become damaged every time you have bronchitis and have to increase your medicine. You need to find what’s causing the asthma to worsen.” Once again, I pictured myself with an oxygen tank strapped to my back.

My fear turned into prayers. God, what is causing the asthma? Just tell me and I’ll do whatever it takes. I don’t want to end up with that tank on my back. Then, from the recesses of my mind came Dana’s story about eliminating dairy.

Was that it? Did I need to eliminate all types of dairy from my diet? Impossible in Holland! This country is dairy land—the best yogurt and cheeses in the world! That would mean no more ice cream! Christmas loomed just around the corner. How could I survive the holidays without dairy? I refused to listen to those crazy thoughts.

Just days after New Year’s, the doctor prescribed yet another, stronger inhaler to help clear my lungs. That potent medicine was the final straw. I made up my mind and shared my difficult decision with my husband, “Babe, I’m going to try to go off of dairy for the next eight weeks to see if my asthma improves. Will you be willing to adapt your diet in the beginning to help me out?”

“Whatever it takes, I’ll help.” And he meant it. He and the kids could still eat their ice cream and cheese, but all those fabulous Dutch mashed potato dishes made with creamy butter and milk would need serious adaptations.

Within two weeks, I noticed a big difference in my breathing, and by the end of eight weeks, my lungs felt open again. My energy levels increased and I suspected I had found the answer. As a small trial, on Easter, I poured yogurt dressing on my salad and treated myself to a big piece of Mont Blanc whipped cream pie. The next day I was treated to an asthma attack and flu-like symptoms when all my glands swelled. The proof was in the pudding.

From that point on, I ate dairy-free. The first six months were the most challenging. I focused on all the foods I could no longer enjoy: ice cream, chocolate, melted cheese, pizza, etc. . . . Life felt so unfair! Finally, I realized how many amazing dairy-free foods I could have and chose to focus on all the healthy choices I was forced to make.

I became the dairy-free queen. It required being creative and adapting my favorite recipes to be dairy-free. I scrupulously read the labels on every package and discovered the code words for hidden dairy ingredients like casein and whey. I hunted down soy and dairy-free products in the grocery and health food stores.

After three months, I stopped using my daily inhalers. For the next five years I used them only sporadically when exposed to cats or molds. In the past three years, I am happy to report that although I keep a light dosage inhaler on hand, I haven’t needed it.

Right from the start of my dairy-free endeavors, I tried to reintroduce slight amounts of dairy into my diet about every six months. I knew my life would be much easier if I developed a bit of tolerance. Finally, four years ago, I found I could ingest small amounts of butter or chocolate without any adverse reactions. Chocolate! Whipped cream, ice cream and cheese are still no-no’s, but I don’t mind. I can eat chocolate!

Giving up dairy meant regaining my health in more ways than one. I no longer suffer from asthma, my cholesterol (genetically high) stays in a healthy range, and I can manage my weight because of all the high calorie desserts that I politely decline.

When I first said I’d do whatever it took, I’m not sure I meant it. The price of a dairy-free lifestyle seemed too high to pay. But now, the rewards far outweigh any sacrifice I’ve had to make.

~Johnna Stein

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