By Ray Bass
When I was thirteen years old, I declared that I would be a vegetarian. I liked eating potatoes and bread and didn’t like eating chicken, which my parents, doing their best, insisted I finish before leaving the dinner table. During one distinctly memorable meal I chewed the chicken, ran to the bathroom, and spit it in a tissue. I was stubborn, but resolved.
Becoming a vegetarian wasn’t a one-and-done decision, though. There were other calls I had to make before I could embark on my meat-free life. Was I going to eat eggs? Dairy? Fish? I decided to ease my way in and be a “pescetarian”—meaning I’d eat it all. My main concern was getting meat out of the picture, the rest felt less important.
After a few months, I began dipping my toes in different tide pools. By that point, I’d read all the PETA propaganda, and their revolt against the dairy industry was convincing. I played with the idea of eliminating dairy, and even waded into the shallows of veganism for a bit. Ultimately, dairy got the boot, and instead of boring people with the reasoning, I feigned lactose intolerance. And after a year of not eating dairy, I didn’t have to feign anything. Anytime I went near the stuff the bloating, indigestion, and constipation were immediate and unrelenting. Those feelings and what I knew about the dairy industry were enough to keep me away until college.
College, with its numerous fast casual eateries and all-you-can-eat dining halls, was a land of forbidden foods. I was Augustus Gloop in the chocolate factory. I spent a month or two indulging in the delights before reigning it in and eating dairy on occasion. Late night pizza was a beloved tradition, and sometimes it was easier to go with the flow than to stand by my choices. Not eating meat was what I cared about—the rest still felt less important.
I spent the rest of college and the years following abstaining from dairy at home, and sporadically acquiescing when we went out if it felt “worth it.” Since I ate most of my meals at home, this felt like a fair compromise. That was, until I started working at a health and wellness company, where the final word was that dairy was bad.
Many people in the holistic health world saw (and still see) dairy as a hormone-disrupting, acne-causing, gut-wrecking substance, pumped with antibiotics—unless it’s ghee or grass-fed butter in coffee. Cheese, yogurt, and milk made from cow’s milk were considered satanic, and though you were “allowed” to eat them at work, herd mentality dominated. We all read the same books by the same people who claimed that dairy wasn’t meant for humans and should be avoided. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to eat it — I just genuinely believed that I shouldn’t.
For two years, the culture that food created in the office weighed on me. I felt the pressure and the judgment that comes with constantly being around people who are obsessed with optimizing their health. It was rare that you saw anyone eating dairy — and when you did, you knew someone would bring it up. Those eating mac and cheese were assumed to be having a rough day, and if you ate yogurt not made from nuts, you were probably new. Only the men, of which there were few, felt free to eat whatever they wanted. It took me gaining nearly 10 pounds in my two years there to realize that something wasn’t right. I called my doctor, who’s also a registered dietitian, and made an appointment.
The takeaway from that appointment was that, to restore my normal weight and accommodate my demanding workout schedule, I had to vastly increase my protein intake. Eating beans, legumes, and eggs alone wasn’t going to cut it. That’s when I introduced Greek yogurt and cottage cheese back into my diet, and eventually, goat and cow’s cheese. The impact on my mental health was enormous, as was the effect on my physical health. I lost the weight I’d put on, improved my health markers, and even my digestion got a boost. I learned that few actions are more gratifying than freeing yourself from the opinions of others—and for me, that meant trusting that I know how food makes me feel better than anyone.
Now, I eat yogurt. I bake with real butter, sugar, and flour. I eat vegetables and grains and fats and cheese. I feel more at ease and full of life than I ever did without dairy. My body composition has changed, thanks to the addition of more protein, and so far, I have nothing negative to report. I wish I could go back and tell myself that I was wrong to write off moderation and choose extremism. I could’ve spent more years being healthy instead of constantly pursuing the latest version of “health.” I know now that if you listen to all of the noise—the opinions, the fleeting trends, the do’s of one person and the don’ts of another—eventually you hear nothing.
I still condemn the dairy industry’s practices and mistreatment of animals. I still work with organizations that advocate for animal rights. As food companies continue to invest in the plant-based movement, I hope that more minimally processed forms of protein are discovered — and that they taste good. I hope that one day plants can replace meat and dairy. I still want those systemic changes while trying to feel my best within the system that we have. And for now, that includes a little dairy.
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