I look at the Google calendar on my phone.
The colour-coded bars represent a myriad of things I need to accomplish the following week: attend a food tasting at a halal French restaurant, interview two business owners, review some rice bowls, and a million other things to ensure The Halal Eater runs smoothly.
To a bystander, I probably look uninteresting, and the only thing vaguely suspicious about me is the peculiar surroundings I am in.
I am sitting in the waiting room of a gastroenterology clinic, waiting for my turn to see a “stomach specialist”.
You might be picturing me as a concerned parent sending his child to a check-up, as most parents do.
But no, I do not have an infant screaming in pain on my lap, and the patient seeing the doctor is me.
Warped perception of illness
When we’re in our 20s, we think of illnesses as something that can only befall our parents. When we’re in our 30s, we expand that group to include our babies — tiny, defenceless human beings who can contract diseases if you so much as move near them.
It’s a natural side-effect of ageing — or coming of age — we tell ourselves. After all, our peers look healthy, and our elders constantly praise on our youth and vigour.
“Sihat eh kau sekarang” is a common remark sent my way these days. It translates to “You’re so healthy now” but everyone knows it’s just a polite way of commenting on my weight gain, the bane of being a food editor.
Yet, at 35, I still think I’m invincible, charging through middle age unbridled by thoughts of illness or worse, my own mortality.
Or at least that’s what I thought. As the owner of a food media company, I am constantly on the go — eating, writing, negotiating deals, eating, interviewing personalities, checking out new openings, eating, training new hires, and more eating in between.
Saying that I eat on the job is probably an understatement.
And everyone who knows me, knows that I am adventurous with food and that I would try a dish at least once as long as it is halal. I love eating, travelling and discovering new food but lactose intolerance (LI) meant I cannot be oblivious to what I consume now.
The symptoms were non-problematic at first.
As recently as five years ago, I started noticing that I would get bloated after meals easily, sometimes even when I ate very small portions.
Being a self-proclaimed “foodie”, I brushed it off as a minor inconvenience. After all, I didn’t feel sick or uneasy. Neither was there any pain or bowel issues. In fact, I felt perfectly fine save for the occasional bouts of flatulence that seemed to plague me — and my family — with increasing regularity.
The symptoms carried on for the next few years, to the point where I accepted them as normal things I couldn’t control.
At the time, I was an advertising executive working for an infant formula client and consequently, I became well versed in milk allergies and gut health.
Food allergies, particularly with eggs, cow’s milk and peanuts typically occur in about 6 percent of children younger than one year, but it is common for them to outgrow the allergies by age 5.
That got me thinking; could adults develop milk allergy or lactose intolerance despite not having it before? I certainly never had issues with dairy growing up, so why now?
As it turns out, we could.
Adult onset LI more common than you think
According to SingHealth, lactose intolerance can arise as we age due to a loss of lactase — the enzyme responsible for the digestion of lactose — in our body.
Interestingly, lactose intolerance in adulthood is most prevalent in people of East Asian descent! In these communities, lactose intolerance affects more than 90 per cent of adults, according to the US National Library of Medicine.
I was shook, but I still did not find the symptoms bothersome enough to warrant a doctor’s visit until recently. Late last year, the symptoms were becoming more and more troubling.
For instance, diarrhoea became more than just a lame excuse to avoid going to work; at its peak, my toilet visitation frequency increased to more than five times an hour. And this usually stretched for at least two days in a row.
In the beginning, I conducted a simple self-test to convince myself that milk was the culprit to my troubles. One day, I completely removed milk products in my diet. No teh tarik, no yogurt, no ice cream, no cheesecake, no bubble tea, zilch. Then, on another day, I consumed meals that were heavy on dairy.
The bothersome symptoms were more prevalent on the day I binged on dairy, so that made me fairly convinced that I was lactose intolerant. Disclaimer: I do not recommend doing this experiment on yourself unless you are absolutely certain you will be safe, or at least have access to a toilet nearby.
That said, a doctor is the only person that can give you a proper diagnosis. The doctor will conduct tests which can include a blood test as well as a hydrogen breath test to evaluate your body’s reaction after drinking a high-lactose solution.
A dairy-free diet challenge
But I’m not here to relive my experience with those tests. Neither am I here to tell you that I am now “cured”. In fact, there isn’t a treatment to improve the body’s ability to process lactose, but the symptoms can be controlled by keeping to a diet that limits lactose.
As someone who makes a living out of eating food, I am curious as to how I can continue to earn a living while keeping my lactose intolerance at bay.
With that in mind, I set out on a simple 3-day challenge to see if reducing or eliminating dairy from my diet was easy or possible, if at all. I also documented the journey on @thehalaleater Instagram Stories to remain accountable throughout the experience.
I was working from home that day so in a sense, my meals would be easier to control since I know what ingredients go into my food or I can read food labels to ensure the food is dairy-free.
On most mornings, I usually eat overnight oats which I made the night before using rolled oats, milk, granola, and whatever fruits I have in the fridge. Overnight oats is the ultimate breakfast food, in my opinion. But since I was doing the challenge, I did not make any.
Sure, I could use dairy-free milk substitutes like almond milk or oat milk but it did not cross my mind when grocery-shopping the day before. So I settled for a safe but boring food: an orange. At least my body’s loading up on good old Vitamin C!
The anticipation for lunch was what got me through that long morning with only an orange for sustenance. That’s because I was expecting a food drop from a new eatery specialising in rice bowls that just opened recently.
When the food arrived, I did a cursory check on the main ingredients that were visible in the bowl: chicken-flavoured brown rice, sous vide egg, oven-baked chicken, Japanese cucumber, broccoli, and chickpeas. They looked fine.
The only thing I was worried about was the variety of sauces that came with the food, so I asked the owner if any of them had dairy in it. Granted, a small amount wouldn’t hurt, but I just wanted to be sure.
As it turned out, only one sauce had butter in it. So for the sake of this challenge, I avoided it entirely.
I ate the last rice bowl left, which was more than enough for dinner. However, my wife cooked sambal tumis — a stir-fried chili paste dish with fishballs, fishcake and hard-boiled eggs — so I ate that too, as loving husbands should.
All the while, my head was playing the soundtrack of my relatives chanting “Sihat eh kau sekarang” but at least I went to bed without any stomach discomfort, so I considered Day 1 a win.
It’s WFH day again. For the most part, I am glad that I get to work remotely due to being a small, digital company. I understand it is a privilege that not many people have. This might result in them making poor food choices especially if their office is surrounded by many eateries that may not necessarily have a vested interest in their health.
On the flip side, one could argue that working from home is promoting an even more sedentary lifestyle which is why I make it a point to run at least two times a week.
This time, I decided to start the day by giving “alternative milk” a try.
For people like me who already have a habit of drinking milk, the new UNISOY GOLD Nutritious Soy Matcha seemed like an upgrade. I mean, matcha always sounds atas, right?
The website indicates that it is “a perfect blend of nutrients between lactose-free soy and 100% premium Matcha imported directly from Japan.” Two words caught my eye instantly: lactose-free and Japan. Since I am lactose intolerant and I can’t travel to Japan — or anywhere for that matter — this drink is an absolute gold mine.
I poured a sachet of the soy matcha into a glass of warm water, stirred the mixture a few times, and breakfast was sorted.
Given that it is soy milk, it does not feel heavy or viscous in the mouth — characteristics of milk that I actually like. None of that skimmed / non-fat stuff for me. However, the familiar vegetal taste of matcha turned an otherwise bland soy milk to something quite pleasurable.
I wouldn’t say that I eat healthily, but I actually really like salads. It’s a habit I picked up working in a multi-national ad agency where salad bowls are de rigueur.
So for lunch, I made myself a simple salad comprising of whatever’s on discount at the grocery store that day: baby spinach, cucumber, cherry tomatoes, and avocado. For protein, I added grilled chicken breast marinated in teriyaki sauce. I finished it off with a generous drizzle of olive oil dressing for extra flavour.
The teriyaki chicken actually came out better than expected, so I was happy with that.
Work ended unusually late today, so I only had dinner after 8pm. Fortunately, there were teriyaki chicken and sambal tumis left over, so I had them with plain white rice and called it a day.
If I was being honest, a tub of ice-cream in the freezer was super tempting. I have a sweet tooth so it took a lot of will power — and incessant nagging from the wife — for me to avoid it like the plague. Lesson learnt here: When going on a diet or some challenge, it’s always useful to have a strict family member or friend to keep you on the straight and narrow.
After two days of working at home, I was finally heading out to meet a potential client followed by lunch with a couple of friends. I did not inform them about my recent dietary changes, not because I thought they would make fun of me, but rather because I wanted to see if I could dine out safely without inconveniencing others.
Someone asked me on Instagram DM why kept bananas in the fridge, and the answer to that is pretty simple: I make smoothies regularly, and bananas — or any fruit for that matter — work better when they are cold.
So today, I decided to get a little creative with those bananas and a cup of UNISOY GOLD Nutritious Soy Matcha that I chilled overnight. Normally, I prefer to keep my smoothie pretty straightforward i.e. less than three ingredients. But I had a few extra ingredients on hand, so I included them as well.
Ingredients for my soy matcha banana mango smoothie:
- 1 cup UNISOY GOLD Nutritious Soy Matcha (chilled)
- 1 cup frozen bananas (sliced)
- 1/2 cup frozen mango (diced)
- 1/2 cup baby spinach
- Put all ingredients into a smoothie blender.
- Blend for about 1 minute or till you achieve a smooth, creamy texture.
I ended a client meeting shortly after 12pm and had time to kill before lunch, so I headed to a nearby coffeeshop for a break.
No sooner had I ordered kopi peng than I realised that it had milk in it. After all, I am a creature of habit, and that is my standard kopi order.
Fortunately, the cashier could not comprehend what I said earlier — thank you surgical mask — so I quickly corrected the order to kopi o peng instead.
Speaking of kopi, a follower DM-ed me her rather peculiar experience with managing her lactose intolerance when drinking beverages. According to her, hot drinks like coffee and tea (with milk) are less likely to trigger LI symptoms than cold beverages like yogurt and cold milk. I’m not sure about the exact science behind it, but perhaps lactose is easier to digest when consumed hot rather than cold?
A simple bowl of bakmi, a type of stir-fried Indonesian noodle, was my choice for lunch today. This was accompanied with a bowl of beef bakso soup. As a Malay Singaporean guy with Indonesian roots, Malay/Indonesian food is a staple so I always fall back to the dishes of my forefathers.
Thankfully, milk or dairy products like cheese and yogurt are hardly used in Asian food so technically, I can survive on a strictly Malay diet alone. Whether that’s healthy or not is an entirely different story. After all, the Malay fat-saturated diet is known to consist of high-calorie food like rendang and nasi lemak.
I’ve yet to have cravings for those notoriously unhealthy food though, so I’m good. Even so, coconut milk is used in both rendang and nasi lemak, so technically, I could eat them if I wanted to.
For my last meal in the three-day dairy-free diet challenge, I almost succumbed to pizza. I was at the basement of a mall where all the food shops are, and I was spoilt for choice.
Luckily, I saw my go-to stall for asam laksa and quickly made a beeline for it, with invisible blinders blocking my peripheral vision from the pizza shop.
The tangy, spicy and sour flavours of the asam laksa broth rekindled my fondness for this uniquely Malaysian dish, and if I had any cravings for pizza earlier, it was long gone.
After dinner, I walked past a cheesecake shop without incident. By this time, I expected my body to crave for dairy but quite proudly, I didn’t feel like I missed out.
The best diet is one you can stick to
In the blink of an eye, three days flew by and I can proudly say that I’d successfully completed the no-dairy challenge.
But that would imply that the past three days had been a somewhat difficult period, which it wasn’t.
Whilst I had deliberately avoided milk and foods that had dairy in them, I did not feel like I was troubling or punishing myself for something my body cannot control.
If anything, subjecting myself to the challenge had the added benefit of controlling the amount of food I ate. I’m a huge snacker by default, but in those three days, I did not snack in between meals at all, largely because I was worried I would go off-kilter with the no-lactose diet.
Knowing that my condition isn’t particularly rare — approximately 65 per cent of the human population has LI — also helped to put my mind at ease.
I’m unsure if I would go completely dairy-free in the near future, but small adjustments like incorporating UNISOY GOLD Nutritious Soy Matcha into my meals seem more sustainable than huge lifestyle changes and all-or-nothing dietary fads. Plus, matcha is one of my favourite flavours so that’s an added bonus.
Instead of going cold turkey on dairy, what this lactose intolerant food editor would do is to watch the proportion of food he eats, and incorporate healthier alternatives to things he already consume. This will go a long way to staving off long term health problems and maybe, just maybe, stop the incessant “Sihat eh kau sekarang” remarks once and for all.
UNISOY GOLD Nutritious Soy Matcha Promotion
UNISOY products are available at selected FairPrice, Sheng Siong supermarkets and UNISOY online marketplace (Qoo10, Shopee, UNISOY e-shop).
Limited Launch Promo till 31 Dec 2020: S$8.90 (U.P S$10.90) for a pack of 10 sachets, available at selected FairPrice and Sheng Siong supermarkets.
This article is brought to you in partnership with UNISOY.