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I tried cutting out dairy for a week — here’s what happens


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Photo: Stocksy/Ellie Baygulov

I’ve swapped in honey for my face wash and used apple cider vinegar as a toner, all in the name of clear skin. But in my quest for vanquishing my adult acne, there’s been one major change that I’ve always avoided making: cutting dairy.

Milk products can be a major pimple perpetrator, since they’re seriously inflammatory. (Inflammation is also behind all sorts of other ailments like headaches, diseases, and painful periods, so acne isn’t the only reason to side-eye that tub of yogurt.)

But while I committed to making some minor tweaks earlier this year—like opting for almond milk in my matcha lattes—I still found myself ordering goat cheese in my salad or intentionally forgetting to ask a server whether a dish was cooked in butter instead of, say, coconut oil.

In my quest for vanquishing my adult acne, there’s been one major change that I’ve always avoided making: cutting dairy

In the search for problem-free skin I figured I’d finally go 100 percent dairy-free for a week, and see if it was really as life-changing  as many people have made it out to be.

Maria Bella, registered dietitian and founder of Top Balance Nutrition, is one of those people. “Cutting out dairy can be beneficial to people prone to breakouts, those experiencing acid reflux, and individuals who are lactose intolerant,” she says. For someone like me, Bella explains, dairy could be increasing my sebum production, which could directly lead to acne. And that’s not the only potential pimple problem: “Another issue is the hormones found in milk, which have been linked to inflammation of the skin as well as premature aging.”

Though she points out that an adult woman typically needs 1,000 milligrams of calcium each day, the dietician says you can easily get it through other calcium-rich foods like fatty fish, beans, and leafy greens. (Michael Pollan would agree.)

Since there are endless alternatives to dairy-derived foods, how hard could it be to go dairy-free for seven days?

Keep reading to see what happened when I cut out dairy for a week.

dairy-free cheese alternatives
Photo: Stocksy/Marti Sans

Navigating my post-dairy life

I quickly realized that dairy lurks in so many things besides cheese and milk. The hardest part for me was watching my butter intake, since that’s something that’s hard to control when dining out. I had to be that person who asked the waiter to make sure the dish was dairy-free. (This was particularly embarrassing one night while at an Italian restaurant with my boyfriend’s parents, who looked aghast as I firmly turned down cheese and butter for my pasta.) There was an upside to all of this: It forced me to cook at home more, which is another resolution of mine.

Salad dressings were also tough. On my first dairy-free day, I had to swap the dressing in my favorite salad at Sweetgreen (which typically comes with cucumber tahini yogurt)—though I discovered that I liked the vegan option even more. (Spicy cashew dressing FTW!)

Overall, cutting dairy wasn’t the toughest change to make—it just requires diligence, especially when not preparing your own food. And I made sure to follow Bella’s advice to get enough calcium through veggies and healthy fats.

Though I found it harder to cut sugar, and I imagine cutting gluten would be exceedingly difficult, going dairy-free came with major benefits that I noticed at the end of the week.

eliminating dairy for clear skin
Photo: Stocksy/Dylan M. Howell Photography

The perks of a dairy-free diet

I can’t argue with the fact that cutting dairy does wonders for your stomach. I never felt cramps or digestive woes during my elimination week, and I did feel significantly less bloated.

But the most exciting thing was that I didn’t break out at all. On the seventh day, I was peering into the mirror and realized something was off—I didn’t have a huge cyst (or two) growing on my chin. And it was the week before my period, which is typically the absolute worst time for my skin.

Instead, I had the clearest complexion I’ve had in months, and no angry inflammation was to be found. Could cutting dairy finally be the solution to my pimple woes? (That’s what worked for Alicia Keys, after all.)

The dilemma is, of course, that cheese is delicious—would I never touch it again? I’m going to try not to (or, at least, I’ll just be reaching for a vegan option). The benefits definitely outweigh the taste—I feel healthier, and I’ve been trying to get clear skin for years. I’ll do anything to maintain this glow.

Sorry, butter: I guess I can quit you.

Originally published December 26, 2016; updated July 3, 2018.

Other ways to get a radiant complexion? Sip on these nine smoothies for healthy, glowing skin. Or add a gut-healthy, beauty-boosting supplements into your routine.

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