Remember those “milk does a body good” ads? Chances are, “Got milk?” wouldn’t go over quite as well today as it did back in the day. Anyone with some Inflammation 101 knowledge knows that dairy has the potential to be problematic. As in: it can cause pimples, increase the risk of ovarian cancer and heart disease, and, oh yeah, can make you bloated.
In years past, giving up milk and cheese would mean a life without pizza, ice cream, and milkshakes. But times have changed. There’s been a nut milk explosion, which has expanded to a boom in the vegan cheese market. And as more food bloggers and cookbook authors are proving, all it takes to live a dairy-free life is a little creativity.
But that doesn’t mean the transition is easy, says One Part Plant author Jessica Murnane. A few years ago, the blogger and podcaster was filling up on microwavable meals, candy, and yes, lots of dairy, until she was diagnosed with stage-four endometriosis. “I was faced with getting a hysterectomy and was in so much pain that I couldn’t even stand up,” she shares. “I tried pain killers. Weed. Everything.”
Shortly before her surgery, a friend sent her an article linking plant-based eating to healing endometriosis. Murnane was skeptical, but tried it and found that changing her diet transformed her life so drastically that she didn’t need the surgery. (She’s not the only one who has healed herself with food.)
Her new diet was effective, but a challenge. “I missed sugar and dairy the most,” Murnane admits. “But only because I didn’t know you could use cashew cream instead of cheese or something like maple syrup in place of sugar.”
Murnane had practically zero experience cooking for herself before going plant-based and dairy-free, but having logged a lot of hours in the kitchen testing out different recipes, she’s now a pro. (Need proof? Check out the delish, dairy-free mushroom lasagna in her new book.)
Her recipes are so easy to follow and delicious that Lena Dunham, who also has endometriosis, gave her a shoutout on Instagram: “She taught me how to stock my fridge like an adult with healthy and delicious shit,” the Girls creator captioned the photo.
Keep reading for Murnane’s tips on cutting ties with dairy for good, while still eating delicious meals.
Ease into it
Murnane’s first tip: Start with one meal a day. It’s actually the whole philosophy behind her book. “When I first had to switch my diet, I was pissed off and sad,” she says. “It just felt so overwhelming. I didn’t have a cookbook like mine that showed me that I could still eat lasagna.”
Eliminating dairy one meal per day is a first step, but it proves to yourself it can be done. Of course, Murnane hopes people feel the difference and graduate up to two and then three dairy-free meals a day, but, hey, you have to start somewhere.
It’s all about texture and taste
Hitting up the alt-milk aisle can be overwhelming—there are so many options. Murnane says there isn’t one that’s necessarily “better” than the others—it all depends on what end result you’re trying to achieve. “Think about why you’re using it,” Murnane says. “Is it the creaminess you miss? The saltiness?”
Then, you’ll know what to look for when shopping for alt-milk or vegan cheese. She also has one big tip for standard cooking: use unsweetened nut milk as a base. “Make sure you read the label because if you’re making mashed potatoes and you use sweetened nut milk, it’s just not going to taste as good.”
Go for whole foods, not chemicals
One way to bypass trying a lot of terrible fake cheese: Read the ingredients list and stick to ones made with whole foods, not four-syllable chemicals. “Just because it’s vegan doesn’t mean it’s healthy,” Murnane points out. Vegan cheese made with whole foods will probably not only taste better, but it will be easier to digest. Spoiler alert: your body likes real, nutrient-dense food.
Remember why you’re doing it
When you’re eating out, it can be a bit trickier to say no to dairy—all those shared apps and no vegan cheese options! Murnane says the key is to remember why you opted to give it up in the first place.
“A lot of times we get caught up in the social aspect of food,” she says. When eying the communal creamy artichoke dip in front of you, she suggests asking yourself: Is this worth how it will make me feel later?
“If it means having a stomachache, not being able to go to the bathroom, or going to the bathroom too much, is it worth it? If the answer is yes, go for it and then deal with what happens later. But for me, I just kept answering no.”
What you eat comes back to self-care, she stresses. “I had to decide, what’s more important here, me or this brie?” Chances are, you won’t have to think that hard about the answer. And hey, you’ll want to save room for dessert, anyway. Vegan milkshake, anyone?
If you’re trying to give up inflammatory foods all together, cutting sugar is a great place to start. And no, that doesn’t mean kissing your morning smoothie goodbye.