By Edith Forbes, author of Tracking a Shadow: My Lived Experiment with MS
Many years ago, as she was buttering her toast, my favorite aunt remarked, “A life without butter would be a barren and desolate waste.”
She was only half joking and I felt the same way. I adored not just butter, but almost everything ever made from milk. Cream in my coffee. Sharp cheddar melted on crackers. Crème caramel. Fettuccine alfredo. Ice cream. An endlessly varied array of swooning delights.
Then wham, I was shoved into the dietary equivalent of a cold shower, courtesy of my immune system. In the early 1990’s, I experienced two episodes of multiple sclerosis and the doctors said there were no treatments. I just had to wait and see how bad it would get.
I’m not good at waiting. I’m especially not good at waiting to see if that bus barreling in my direction is actually going to hit me. I went to a medical library and started reading.
There I found epidemiological data that suggested a correlation between milk consumption and the incidence of MS. When I mentioned this observation to a relative who is a research physician, he promptly did a search of medical journals and found that my casual observation had just been documented in a published study. I describe this journey in my memoir Tracking a Shadow: My Lived Experience With MS.
This was a good news/bad news discovery. The good news was that there was something I could do that might improve my outlook. The bad news was that what I could do was stop consuming any milk products.
I didn’t know for sure this would help, but it could do no harm. And I really needed to do something. Yes, I loved all things milk, but I also loved gardening, skiing, farming, softball, and a lot of other things for which I needed mobility, energy and eyesight, things that over time might be taken away from me by MS. So I was frightened.
In my case, psychologically, I needed to be absolute in my avoidance rather than asking myself constantly whether I could make an exception. Just treat it the way one would a peanut allergy. No, none, not ever.
Now, after twenty-seven years without milk or milk products and no progression in my MS, it has become easy to be absolute. It is a habit, and I don’t even think about it. But along the way, I needed strategies to help me stick with the plan. These strategies, I discovered, could help others with almost any dietary restriction:
Focus on the possible. Think of the things you can eat, not on the things you’re missing. Whole regions of the globe cook without using ingredients like milk, and there are many wonderful cuisines to draw upon. Most Asian food. Barbecue. Steaks. Seafood. Vegan cuisine. Authentic Mexican. Food is so multifarious and cooks are so inventive, whatever one must leave out, there is always something else one can eat and new flavors to discover.
Experiment. Play with your food. Take it as a challenge to mess about in the kitchen and find adjustments and substitutions. That’s what I did, and it allowed me to make some very surprising things without milk. Thanks to soymilk, mayonnaise, shortening, nut butters and other substitute ingredients, I was able to adapt many of my favorite comfort foods, ranging from chocolate chip cookies to chicken with creamy Dijon-wine sauce. I found—as you surely will—that the kitchen experiments were a lot of fun.
Notice the benefits. It likely won’t take long before you see positive changes in your health. For instance, my cholesterol level dropped 25 points, from squarely normal to the low end of normal. My respiratory allergies became much less severe. It would be years before I would really know if my diet was helping the MS, so it was bolstering to notice other benefits in the meantime.
Smile when saying no. Navigating social situations can feel challenging when you first start a new dietary regime. For me, this was one of the biggest challenges early on. It felt rude to decline a dish someone had cooked. And I didn’t want the host to feel bad about what they had prepared. But I got very good at reassuring people that I was quite content with whatever parts of the meal I could eat. I learned how to smile cheerfully and say “No, thank you.” Even if my meal was carrot sticks and a fruit cup, one doesn’t die of starvation in one day.
Let fear be your friend. If you feel your determination wavering, remind yourself of the reasons for your restrictions. Fear is very motivating. Harnessed to constructive action, it is a locomotive. But different people are afraid of different things, and only you can know what kind of fear will serve as a motivation. For me, the prospect of the disability MS can cause was a powerful source of fear. And I needed something really powerful to make me give up something I loved as much as I loved milk.
Happily, the palate adjusts. Since eliminating milk from my diet, I’ve enjoyed cooking and eating as much as ever. And I now know that a life without butter is far from a desolate waste.
Edith Forbes is the author of Tracking A Shadow: My Lived Experiment With MS, a memoir about the self-designed experiment that led her to identify a unique approach to the disease. She has also written four novels published by Seal Press in Seattle. She began her career in computer programming but abandoned it for less logical pursuits including farming, house renovation, and writing. In addition to novels and her memoir, she has penned essays, poetry, screenplays and a cookbook. She holds a degree in English from Stanford, was raised on a ranch in Wyoming and currently lives on a small farm in Vermont.
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