Musings

Living with lactose intolerance

I had no allergies as a kid. Really, not a single one. I had friends carrying epi pens to school, but I could roll in the grass and eat peanuts by the handful, and I’d be fine. I thought I would be like that forever. After all, why would I suddenly develop an allergy as an adult?

I was actually right. So far, so good – (almost) 23 years old and no allergies.

But there’s something else.

Lactose intolerance. 

Two words that changed so much.

At first, it was just milk. I couldn’t even have a smallest amount, but I just thought it was normal – adults don’t deal with cow milk too well anyway. I started buying soy milk, rice milk and all the other plant milks. Problem solved. The thought of it being a sign of  lactose intolerance developing never once crossed my mind.

Then it was soft cheeses, and cream. I had to say goodbye to mozzarella, ricotta and, with them, some of my favourite dishes (I still get cravings for a pearly barley, feta and plum tomatoes salad…). It was at this point that I realised it wasn’t just milk that was an issue, it had to be lactose. But I could still eat most of the things I liked, like harder cheeses, butter, and even ice cream.

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But then ice cream was no longer an option. And then the harder cheeses, like cheddar. Up until the summer, I could still eat yoghurts. Now I no longer can. Up until a few months ago, I could still eat butter. Now it’s off the table (quite literally).

A few days ago, a single chocolate covered Hobnob made me feel sick, and that just made me sad and angry. The following day I was at work, and decided to grab a snack from Sainsbury’s by the office. Finding something that wasn’t laiden with milk or milk powder was a struggle I never experienced before, because I had been able to eat milk chocolate up until a few weeks ago. I was standing in the middle of that shop and felt like crying.

At every stage of my lactose intolerance advancing, I thought that I reached the worst. That it wouldn’t develop any further. But then, with each one, I was growing more scared, more wary of eating foods that I ate even a day before, just in case today was the day I could no longer eat them.

I know. There are a lot of substitutes. I enjoy the fact that I can buy lactose free milk, yoghurts, or even spreadable cheese (I literally hugged the container when my local Morrisons started stocking it, so big was my joy). There are also soy and coconut substitutes, rice milk, oat milk, whatever you want milk (hemp milk? sure, why not). But I love eating, and those things are never enough. There are no substitutes for proper, soft, milky mozzarella, for Gü pods, for creamy ice cream. And you know what most ready-made vegan desserts are made with? Coconut milk or cream. Which I seriously dislike.

First world problems, you might say. Maybe. Lactose intolerance didn’t ruin my life, obviously, but it changed the way I eat. Forever.

And forever is quite a long time.

If I’m cooking for myself, it’s not that big an issue. I just omit or substitute. But it’s not that easy if you want to buy a ready meal, get a takeaway, or eat at a friend’s house. I have to nag waiters about whether this or that dish has lactose in it, and pray that they actually know their shit. I have to hope the person making my coffee doesn’t make a mistake and makes my latte with semi-skimmed instead of soy. Because it happened before. Thankfully I double checked.

And I can never have cream on top of my hot chocolate.

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I have to walk past London patisseries with the most beautiful cakes ever in their display windows, and I can’t eat any of them. I walk past ice cream places. Not much for me there, either (yes, I can have a sorbet, but come on…). And it’s not the same as being on a diet. You can always have a cheat day, or treat yourself when the diet is over. I pass by those foods knowing I can’t ever have them. If I went to a friend’s wedding, I wouldn’t be able to have the cake. I can’t have cheese on my burger. I sometimes have to pay extra for soy milk, and then they put yucky wholegrain in my coffee, and it makes me all angry and sad. Because soy will never taste as good as the real deal. I google foods to check if I can safely have them. I often can’t. I sometimes make mistakes, like in Barcelona, where I happily ate a creama catalana. After two hours of thinking I got food poisoning from the seafood, I realised that I had effectively just put a bowl of milk into my body.

And try to order a pizza with no cheese. Saddest thing ever.

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And yes, yes, I did try lactase tablets. They helped at the beginning, then they only got rid of the worst of the symptoms, but I was left feeling sick. I went a week thinking ‘what the fuck is wrong’ until I realised my lactase just decided to turn on me. Now I’m scared of relying on them. Maybe I’ll man up one day and try again.

I know some people have it worse. Gluten intolerance is a much bigger pain in the bum, and can have far more serious health consequences. People with nut allergies can go into shock if they have the teeniest tiniest amount. I’m sure they struggle with food shopping even more than I do, because everything seems to have traces of those ingredients. Guys, I feel for you.

My lactose intolerance is my personal struggle. I see people on the internet whining about how no one seems to be able to eat a normal meal anymore, everyone is gluten and lactose free, vegan fruitarian. How in the good old days everyone ate everything and all was good. And it’s annoying, you know. Because I so wish my body would produce enough lactase. But it just won’t, and I have to live with it.

My lactose intolerance is with me every day. Every lunch out I have, every meal I cook, I have to make sure there won’t be any lactose in it. And maybe I should get used to it. At some level, I have. But I’m not sure there will ever come a day when a display of cakes, or a pizza bubbling with melted cheese, won’t fill me with sadness.

You know that saying ‘forbidden fruit tastes the sweetest’? I don’t actually fall for the forbidden fruit because it’d only cause me to suffer, but the fact that I can’t eat certain things makes me crave them more than I ever had before. And I wish I stuffed my face with them when I still could, but how could I have known that they’d be gone so soon? Now there is no going back.

And yes, writing this post made me cry.

Hello, my name is Gaby. I’m lactose intolerant, and I’m still learning to deal with it.

2 thoughts on “Living with lactose intolerance”

  1. Hi Gaby :) Research and guidelines for doctors actually say that patients with lactose intolerance should be advised to not eliminate dietary lactose but restrict their intake of lactose to two cups of milk (or its lactose equivalent) daily (taken in divided doses with two meals). The less lactose you have the less lactase your body will produce.. so your own restriction of lactose may have been a cause to your intolerance advansing over time. In some cases people are able to get their body ‘used to’ tolerating lactose by slowly increasing the amount of dairy in their diet :)

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    1. Thank you for your comment, but I don’t believe my body would enjoy such an experiment. Up until just over a year ago I was still eating high amounts of lactose, excluding only milk, but my body decided that it didn’t enjoy it. I didn’t simply decide to cut out dairy and did it overnight. It was a very gradual reaction to what my body was telling me. I still eat small amounts of lactose when it’s an ingredient in sweets etc.

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