Lactose Lucidity: Latte Lento

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

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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.

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