Lactose Lucidity: Latte Lento

Our bodies can seem adamantly decisive about certain dietary choices, but things are not always as absolute as they seem.

Cafe Latte.Over time, we learn to adapt to the special package of hardships and limitations we encounter in the journey through chronic illness. But I’ve had a reminder lately that things can (and do) evolve in both directions.

Early on in my IBD history, my system didn’t tolerate lactose very well. I was never officially tested, but experimentation clearly demonstrated the benefits of a dairy-minimized diet. The most notable change was a significant reduction in gas production. That was one of the first efforts I made to improve my digestive symptoms, and that was even before I had truly severe symptoms that led to my diagnosis years later.

Content to enjoy the benefits, I virtually abandoned dairy products and never looked back. I found some tasty non-dairy creamer for my coffee (which I actually like better than the dairy options I’d been using), switched to lactose-free milk, and reduced my cheese intake significantly. It’s been over 10 years.

But recently I discovered I’ve been accidentally taking in a fair amount of lactose lately. After moving to a larger city where fantastic coffee is plentiful from quirky corner shops and other decidedly non-chain sources, I started trying more exotic drinks than I was accustomed to. Keep in mind that previously my idea of yummy coffee was the French vanilla sugar bomb that comes from the push-button dispenser at the gas station. I had taken to calling it “Worrrrrrzsh” after the sound made by the machine. At some point I had realized that, although rather creamy, those drinks typically contain minimal dairy. While that reassured my lactose concerns, I probably should have been more worried about the chemical substitutes.

But, over time, I found the tastier varieties of “real” coffee (albeit still dessert-ified in latte form) were quite good—and, incidentally, also quite expensive. And then something happened. For the first time in this new espresso foray, a barista asked me, “Whole or skim?” I was instantly befuddled. Suddenly the word latte had a real meaning that I hadn’t considered before… Café latte means “coffee with milk.” I guess I already knew that, but somehow I never consciously translated that into lactose. It was a moment of lucidity that arose out of utter oblivion. I felt like I did the day I realized that the hometown-familiar “London Road” was probably named after a city in England. I had this stunning revelation after driving on it for nearly 20 years. Forget latte, the word lento now comes to mind.

And so it was that I unwittingly re-introduced lactose into my diet, perhaps in larger doses than I care to admit (and more absent-mindedly than I care to believe). In my obsession over so many details, how on earth did I let that slip by? Regardless, what does it mean? Has my system changed? Can I now tolerate dairy products when I am flare-free? Was it really the lactose that caused problems in the first place?

The news raises plenty of questions indeed, but a powerful message shines through… while our bodies can seem adamantly decisive about certain dietary choices, things are not always as absolute as they seem. I am reminded to keep examining and experimenting. While it often feels like we continually make more and more sacrifices, at times we get to enjoy new liberties as well. Bon appetit!

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About the Author

Andrew Tubesing is an acclaimed advocate and humorist on the subject of inflammatory bowel disease.