The Benefits and Challenges of a Dairy-Free Plant-Based Diet

The Benefits and Challenges of a Dairy-Free Plant-Based Diet

Becoming dairy-free and now fully plant-based has been a positive experience in my life. I feel healthier and my food choices are simpler.

Joe here, I am a part of the engineering department here at Spyce! About 8 years ago I identified that I had a dairy food allergy, more specifically, lactose intolerance. Ever since then I haven’t eaten any dairy products. In theory, I could probably handle milk products with little to no lactose, but I made the ultimate decision to cut all dairy out. More recently, I’ve even cut out all animal products from my diet. 

I’ve been a vegetarian on and off throughout my life (mostly on), but currently, I stick to a plant-based diet. For me, the plant-based lifestyle is a strong preference, not an ironclad rule, however, avoiding dairy is non-negotiable

Funny enough, I might not be quite like the average vegan. I eat lots of carbs and don’t really worry about protein. I like most vegetables but I don’t like lettuce, raw onions, or raw tomatoes. So while I consider the average side salad at a restaurant edible, I’d prefer a side of french fries. 

The Benefits of a More Plant-Based Diet

Becoming dairy-free and now fully plant-based has been a positive experience in my life. I feel healthier and my food choices are simpler. I was a little concerned early on that my body wouldn’t adapt, but if anything, it seems like it was a strain to consume animal products. My body didn’t need to adapt to plant-based food, I allowed it to stop adapting to something it never wanted and be more normal.

I can’t actually think of any other mammal species that regularly consume milk as adults from other species of mammals. 

Sustainability

Sustainability (or lack-there-of) is a strong factor in determining what I eat. I consider my choice of diet one of the most effective choices I can make as an individual to lead a more environmentally-friendly existence. 

Health and Safety

Another reason behind choosing a plant-based diet is to promote my own personal health. While everyone is different and has different needs, this just happens to work best for me. 

In addition to health, food safety is also really important to me. In short, I’m a bit of a germaphobe. I’ve seen firsthand how plant-based meals can be safer than meals prepared with or including animal products. For example, once many years ago, I ordered burritos with a friend at a Boston fast-casual chain. They ordered a burrito with chicken, and I ordered the vegetarian burrito instead. Unfortunately, they ended up getting sick from food poisoning for nearly three days whereas I was totally fine. 

The Challenges of a Plant-Based Diet 

Social Meals

Meals with friends and family are significantly challenging, not that this has been much of a factor in the last year or so. One of my tools for this is having some flexibility with what I am willing to eat. I find that just voicing this willingness also helps a lot to disarm people who might otherwise be critical about certain diet choices. It also brings awareness to more unique eating styles and diets out there.

Lifestyle

My lifestyle is active, just about athletic. I cycle a lot for both commuting and recreation. I don’t log my distance, but I probably average over 100 miles a week year-round. My job and just about all my hobbies are pretty active too: hiking, sailing, scuba diving/snorkeling, and kayaking. The level of health I feel with this diet helps maintain a necessary amount of energy for this kind of active lifestyle.

I feel significantly healthier with my current diet than other diets I’ve had. For example, when I lived and worked at sea, I ate meat, it was just easier in that circumstance. Soon after taking a land-based job, I tried going completely plant-based (with some occasional digressions). I felt more energetic physically and mentally. Last summer, when regularly bike-commuting with a coworker I consistently outpaced him despite being 12 years older.  

Take Out

One of the main challenges of a plant-based diet is eating out and finding foods that meet the criteria of what I’m trying to stick to. Since I’m not a foodie, I don’t often know the names of some ingredients used at different restaurants. This can be a bit disconcerting when ordering a meal, especially at fancy restaurants. 

Recently, I ordered from a local donut + coffee shop. It was basically impossible to order easily online with a food allergy. The options I was left with were to either download a PDF ingredient list or give the shop a call, which is a pretty high bar considering I just want an iced coffee and a snack. It would be a big step in the right direction if more restaurants and shops placed a higher priority on food allergies and clarify, especially when ordering.

Restaurants

The overall restaurant experience is frustrating and anxiety-inducing when dealing with a food allergy. Before going to sea, I spent five years traveling throughout the US and Canada full time for work. Eating at restaurants constantly was a struggle, so often I’d adjust trips and hotel stays to be near known acceptable restaurants, this is also where I learned to be flexible when I could.

All of that eating out helped influence my career change to work at sea. This situation wasn’t perfect, there was a lot of “comfort food,” animal products and pre-packaged foods. Fresh food was often rare, depending on where we got stores from and how long ago (most foods in Northern ports had already been shipped there). The ship situation was much simpler than traveling and eating out all the time. It was easy to get to know the galley crew and they were always happy to let me know when something contained dairy if it wasn’t already obvious.  

Sometimes I inform the server of my dairy allergy at restaurants, but I generally avoid this because many restaurants are ill-prepared to handle it. This can be entertaining if I’m feeling patient, but if in a rush or with people you don’t know well, this can be a real mess. 

One of the last times I did this was at a high-end Italian restaurant in Oregon. It was the night before going to sea for a few weeks and a shipmate invited me out. I voiced concern with such a restaurant choice, but she assured me this place was great and that it would be just fine. Luckily they had pretty good beer and that was my primary interest prior to spending a few weeks on a dry ship. After about four or five visits from the server and a significant delay, I was served something that resembled pizza sauce on spaghetti noodles.

Apparently, they had cheese and butter worked into everything on the menu. My shipmates were horrified. I wasn’t surprised and didn’t really care since they at least kept the beer flowing throughout this process. Hopefully, this restaurant has learned to better accommodate food allergies but it’s unlikely I’ll ever be back to find out.  

Embracing Plant-Based Diet Friendly Restaurants

When I came across Spyce almost two years ago, not only did the ordering process include a dairy allergy button but also vegetarian, vegan and many more “easy buttons”. Spyce didn’t have beer at the time but I was able to get a meal quickly and be pretty confident in its contents.

The attention to dietary preferences, as well as Spyce having sustainability-based ingredient choices, were good marks for the company as far as I’m concerned. This was especially exciting considering all of the challenges I face with a plant-based diet.

If you visit Spyce, or any other restaurant that makes specific dietary ordering easy, give a dietary preference a try even if you don’t need to; maybe even try vegan, you might just like it. 

Joe McCabe

I work in the engineering department at Spyce. I mostly deal with electrical control equipment, electrical wiring, and mechanical quality control. I came to Spyce straight from a job working on scientific research vessels full time at sea. I still get out on the water whenever I can but now on recreational sailboats and electric dinghies.

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