What happens when a personal chef and self-proclaimed foodie decides to ditch dairy? One woman explains why she finally said farewell to Camembert and cream — and discovered some pleasant surprises.

Health and wellness touch each of us differently. This is one person’s story.

As a young millennial living in New York City, eating well and prioritizing my health has been easier said than done.

Whether I was grabbing a late-night slice of pizza or staying in with a pint of Ben and Jerry’s, I didn’t always put myself first the way I knew I should. Despite being a vegan restaurant owner, private chef, and self-proclaimed foodie, I had my struggles with food.

Ultimately, I realized that I look to food to sustain my health, my happiness, and my livelihood. I found that having a better understanding of what I put in my body ultimately helped me form a better relationship with my health — and food in general.

Which is how I decided to give up dairy.

The typical reaction when someone is told to eliminate something from their diet — something they love — is often disappointment and denial. Our food habits are so engrained and reforming those habits can be challenging, but the way we handle that challenge is what helps us develop.

Within the last year, I stopped eating dairy. I gave up my beloved Ben and Jerry’s!

Was it hard? It required some trial and error, but wasn’t nearly as difficult as you might expect. Was it worth it? Absolutely. I’ve seen significant changes in my skin, hair, digestion, mood, overall energy, and even weight. My skinny jeans are thanking me — along with every part of my body.

Here are five key reasons I decided to switch to a dairy-free diet. And if you’re interested in making the switch yourself, I’ve included my downloadable 7-day dairy-free meal plan at the bottom, filled with delicious recipes and everything you need to get you started!

1. Acne

I’ve had acne for years. Since being dairy-free, my skin has never been clearer. Acne is an inflammatory condition. Oil gets trapped in pores, causing bacteria to grow in the follicles. It then causes inflammation, which turns to acne.

Dairy is a major cause of oils in the body and helps inflammation grow. Many factors can aggravate acne — dairy isn’t always the cause. Experimenting with diet is worth a try and a trip to the dermatologist can also help rule out more serious issues.

2. Digestion

My digestion became much more consistent — no more bloating or cranky gut issues. When your body can’t break down lactose, gas and bloating are often the result. If you consume too much lactose, it can inflame your large intestine and diarrhea can develop.

A tip: Don’t buy ultra-high-temperature pasteurized milk that never goes bad. That’s not natural and probably not something you want to put into your body.

3. Weight loss

Eliminating dairy can help with weight loss. Milk, plain yogurt, and other unsweetened dairy products contain lactose, a natural sugar, while other dairy products may contain added sugar.

If you’re trying to lose stubborn belly fat, eliminating all sugar can really help. While weight loss wasn’t a personal health goal for me, I’m now day 4 of no sugar whatsoever.

4. Thyroid

Dairy products are mucus-forming and the protein in dairy has been found to increase inflammation in vital parts of the body such as the thyroid gland and digestive tract.

Since cutting dairy, I’ve noticed improvements in my metabolism and energy levels — which can both be linked to thyroid health. I also drink fresh-squeezed celery juice daily on an empty stomach to help alkalize my body and as a preventive measure for thyroid issues.

5. Candida

Dairy is among the foods to avoid if you have or you’re at risk for Candida overgrowth. Dairy has been shown to cause inflammation, which may promote the growth of unhealthy gut bacteria linked to some chronic diseases or conditions including leaky gut.

The milk we consume is pasteurized and homogenized, and synthetic vitamins are typically added. These unnatural additives can cause yeast overgrowth linked to Candida. Inflammation-causing foods like dairy — when they cause problems in the digestive tract — can lead to diarrhea, headaches, and fatigue.

Finally, a few pointers on how I went through the process of ditching dairy while still nourishing my body and allowing myself to enjoy delicious food.

  • Finding dairy-free versions of my favorite foods. It’s easier than ever to find dairy-free products in most stores — and as a private chef, one of the most requested menus I prepare is dairy-free, so I was already tapped into some creative recipes.
  • Keeping an open mind. Some of my clients’ favorite no-dairy swaps include cauliflower pizza crust, cashew cheese, and almond milk. If you aren’t sure how to eat some of your favorite foods without dairy, try one or two small changes first — like almond milk on your granola — and then gradually phase in the more pronounced items. You’ll be surprised at how delicious many of these options are.
  • Incorporating nutrient-rich foods. Adding foods like broccoli, kale, dandelion greens, and spinach into your daily diet can help maintain the key nutrients your body needs, like vitamin D, calcium, and protein. There are plenty of foods other than dairy that we can consume to provide needed nutrients. In fact, just three Brazil nuts a day can help alkalize the body and calm any unwanted inflammation.

Just remember that transitioning to a dairy-free diet can be as gradual as you want for your health and lifestyle. If you like to jump in with both feet first like I tend to do, here are a few kitchen swaps I made and recommend:

  • Ditch the cow’s milk and stock your fridge with almond milk or coconut milk. Be sure they’re unsweetened if you want to avoid added sugar.
  • As painful as this may be, throw out all ice cream. Try a healthier option like So Delicious or Halo Top almond milk ice cream.
  • Stock up on nutritional yeast. It’s naturally low in sodium and calories, plus it’s fat-free, sugar-free, gluten-free, and vegan.
  • Incorporate nuts like cashews and Brazil nuts to help with necessary protein.
  • Load up on your favorite fresh fruits and veggies — always!
  • For all my cheese lovers: Try raw cashew cheese which is not only nutrient-packed but calorie-friendly as well.
  • And last but not least, my personal favorite thing: Keep lots of coconut water on hand to hydrate throughout the day.

Cheese is often the hardest sacrifice for people who give up dairy. It’s an everyday staple, and foods like Parmesan-infused pesto, cheesy paninis, creamy ricotta lasagna, and the always popular pizza make it into our bellies more than we’d like to admit. But consider the potential health benefits before you say, “I can’t give up cheese!”

With a little meal prep and a few creative swaps, it becomes effortless. And in my experience, it’s worth it.

Just remember, speak with a medical professional before going dairy-free. Dairy is important for bone health and provides many nutrients that are vital for the health and maintenance of your body. A nutritionist or doctor may be able to help you decide what’s best for you.

If you’re interested in ditching dairy, I’ve created a 7-day dairy-free meal plan to make it super-easy. Download here.

Julia Chebotar is a natural foods educator, chef, health coach, and wellness expert. She believes that a healthy lifestyle is about balance and encourages her clients to consume organic and seasonally vibrant produce. Julia helps clients create habits and that have a big impact on health, weight, and energy. Connect with her on her website,Instagram, and Facebook.