Changing a habit

We eat a lot of dairy products in this house. My husband and his siblings love to claim that in their family, cheese is a food group. My older boys manage to down gallons of milk every week. I used to put real cream in my coffee every morning, and I love ice cream, to the point where I used to have a little scoop most nights. Warm bread, waffles, or pancakes with butter? Yum.

But at some point in the last year I realized that my chronic sore throats and congestion were making me miserable. I did some research and found that dairy was a potential culprit (red wine too, but I’d already mostly given that up). So I decided to try cutting it out to see what would happen.

The answer is that while the problem is not 100 percent gone, I’d say it’s 75 percent gone (there may be other triggers) and that’s a big improvement. Of course, this means I’m now facing down life without cheese, or at least with very limited cheese. I have needed to change some fairly strongly ingrained habits. Like, I had milk or cream in my coffee every day since I started drinking coffee at age 15.

Changing a 27-year daily habit sounded like it would be…hard. So I’m shocked by how not hard it is has been. True, there are a great many dairy alternatives, but I decided I would try to learn to drink my coffee black. We get really good coffee grounds, make it strong, and now, a few months later, I am not even tempted to use the soy-milk creamer my husband bought. As for ice cream, I guess I have been motivated enough by the fact that I am feeling better to mostly stay away from it. We have several pints of Ben and Jerry’s sitting in the freezer untouched (my kids don’t like ice cream with stuff in it, which is why no one else is eating those). Bread fresh out of the bread maker turns out to be pretty good even without butter.

That just leaves hard situations like family make-your-own pizza night. The current solution is that my husband and I make our pizza with just a tiny bit of cheese on one half. That doesn’t seem to trigger anything too bad.

In any case, I’ve been pondering what I can learn from this in terms of habit change. One is that motivations matter. Avoiding physical pain is a really, really strong motivator. Another is that even a daily habit (like cream in my coffee) might be less ingrained than one might imagine. There are habits that are deep grooves and then there are ones we do just because we do. I have failed in my attempts to check email and Instagram less frequently. Cream turned out to be just something I did early on and then never re-examined.

Support helps. My husband often makes scrambled eggs for breakfast and he just stopped making them with cheese, or would split the pan in half. Plus we’re not in social situations right now where any of this would become an issue. It helps me to remember that this is a choice. If I’m at a dinner party in the future where everyone is eating cheese or ice cream, I can eat these things…I’ll just deal with the consequences.

And then the longer you do something the easier it becomes. Now that I know I can drink my coffee black I’ve decided against putting any non-dairy creamers in it. It’s simpler not to, so no need to start that back up again.

Have you ever changed a long-term habit?


29 thoughts on “Changing a habit

  1. So do you find it’s true that better coffee doesn’t need the addition of creamer? I just can’t do black.

    What kind of coffee have you settled upon?

    1. @Brenda – I am not sure that we are doing really good coffee, it’s just Starbucks Dark Roast, or Seattle’s Best. I guess nice that you get in a regular grocery store. We’re pretty cheap people 🙂

      1. Totally understand! We get it in the large blue/red plastic tubs, which I hate putting back into the environment as garbage. (I don’t believe they can be recycled, and I’m a skeptic about plastic recycling anyway.)

        I’m ready to change brands for both reasons!

        1. Try Oat Milk. I don’t really like soy (too sweet) or almond (just not my jam). But Oatly is amazing and has no added sugar! (It says it does but I’m actually such a dork I contacted the company and they confirmed it’s some sort of food labeling thing where it’s naturally occurring sugar/enzymes but it has to be counted as added – since when I originally started buying it it said 0 grams added and then it was changed later. Also treat yourself to a coffee subscription from Blue Bottle for a month or two (and a coffee grinder) and see what you think 🙂

    2. We’ve been buying slightly better coffee since we’re home all the time. We like Peet’s and Lavazza, or Starbucks medium roast. We find Target has better prices on coffee than our grocery store, and we go there a few times a month, so we can stock up.

    3. For high end mail order coffee: Onyx, Wandering Goat, Coava, or Kuma.

      You can also get an AeroPress for $30 – makes more of an espresso-like coffee and is less bitter.

  2. I have changed multiple diet things like this! Feeling less sick is a really significant motivator.

    I’m dairy free and vegan butter is one of the best substitutes in my opinion! Only thing it isn’t good for is baking. Or you can do restaurant-style oil on toast 🙂

  3. I am trying to give up wine for Lent. This is day 3. I miss it very much already. But am hoping that by cutting it out entirely for 40 days that I can reduce my future intake somewhat. I had gotten into a pandemic habit of having a glass almost every night (because I am not driving anywhere). Wish me luck!

    1. I was drinking a glass or two of wine several nights/week during the early months of the pandemic, and then I needed to stop for a short-term medication. I realized I care more about the ritual of a drink once the kids are in bed than about the alcohol itself. We’ve gotten some good nonalcoholic beer, and I also like a splash of cranberry juice with seltzer in a cocktail glass. I get the satisfaction of the ritual without the alcohol.

      1. @L – I have a Before Breakfast episode (maybe it ran this week?) called “Make it just as special.” Replacing wine with water is not the right direction for that particular miracle… You need something festive and fun if you’re going to replace the ritual. So like a full-on mocktail that requires mixing stuff, some bubbly, a pause to have a drink with someone special… that sort of thing.

  4. I’ve changed several dietary habits recently – the onset of perimenopause seems to have given me intolerances to some foods (bloating issues), and also alcohol (more than one glass gives me a hangover). Becoming almost teetotal and eating salad for lunch every day have not been as hard as I thought. I think I am now too old to endure feeling awful for the sake of indulgence!

    1. It’s the night sweats after alcohol that are driving me crazy (also perenopause). Apparently here in Australia there are a lot more alcohol free “spirits” around, I keep meaning to try some, for the sense of a grown-up drink on weekend nights.

  5. I have had a progression of these food-related changes to address physical issues. Many years back I cut out gluten. On June 1, 2017, I stopped eating sugar and grains altogether. So funny to see this blog post today – this is day 1 of an experiment with no coffee. If I have any “crutch” when it comes to diet it’s my coffee and I have been in denial for some time that it could be the culprit of remaining physical ailments. There’s is only one way to find out for sure and I’ve put it off long enough. I decided when I woke up this morning, today was the day.

  6. I gave up milk in coffee in my first term at university, nearly 40 years ago now. The only fridge was in the kitchen at the end of the corridor (far too far to trek when I had a kettle in my room and an essay crisis!) and having thrown away multiple half used milk cartons I had tried and failed to keep cool on the outside window ledge of my room, it just seemed easier not to have milk in my coffee. I also gave up sweeteners soon after as I didn’t like the taste and am still a black, no sugar coffee person. I don’t recall either change being that hard, but giving up coffee itself? No way! I do love decent quality though and try to buy Fair Trade which really makes a difference to the producers.

  7. I had to give up dairy (among other things) after my gallbladder was taken out. It was very hard the first few months. I asked my family to not have pizza at home since that was one of my favorite foods before. It’s been a little over three years now and I don’t miss it. I do use soy or oat creamer though 🙂 And I can have a small amount of organic butter on my toast.
    I think it was easier because dairy (and other things) made me so sick when I ate them that the price just wasn’t worth it.

    1. @Lynn – yes, pain turns out to be a far more motivating factor than, say, “it’s healthy” or “I want to be skinny” or other such things…

  8. Haagen Daz makes an amazing non-dairy ice cream (or whatever you want to call the frozen deliciousness). I’ve been DF for 4 years and social situations are tough. But there is no food I actually miss enough to deal with the side-effects.

  9. I don’t know why it took me until age 31.75, but, I started and have kept up an actual exercise habit. Or rather, have given up a habit of “sit on couch and not move from 7-8 PM”. I’m now working on shifting workout time to the AM, to mimic what life will be like as a resident (blahhhh)

    I also stopped, long ago, putting sugar in my tea and coffee. No real reason, other than I figured it was easy healthy thing to do…and, I ran out of sugar one day and was too lazy to buy more and kept forgetting, and 7 years later, here we are.

  10. When I started an intermittent fasting routine last year, I had to give up cream in my coffee. At first it was tough but I also learned that it’s doable with decent coffee. Now I drink it black every morning without even thinking about it. I did discover that I had to do it every day in order to make the habit stick. Once I had done it for a month (and after I bought good coffee), I never struggled with it.

  11. Hi Laura,
    I totally relate to food issues and health. I went gluten free a decade ago. I also gave up cheese 6 or 7 years ago for the same reason you did. I also do very low sugar and zero yeast.
    I don’t drink coffee but I do take coconut milk in my cereal.

    Health is a seriously motivating factor. Thanks for sharing your own struggle and success story!

  12. One thought about the cheese on pizza: I’ve given up dairy on and off, mostly when I was nursing and my daughter had severe reflux. You may want to experiment with some sheep or goat milk cheese – chevre, manchego, pecorino as an alternative.

  13. I discovered I was lactose intolerant the first semester of college, after a lifetime (to that point) of loving cheese and ice cream and dairy-filled desserts. This was in fall 2000. The improvements in non-dairy substitutes since then are significant, happily. I highly recommend a trip to the Whole Foods freezer section as they carry myriad brands of non-dairy ice cream. My favorites are their own 365 brand almond based chocolate chip cookie dough and mint chocolate chip. Some ice cream shops now also offer vegan ice cream; I’ve had some great ones. Earth balance has butter substitutes that melt well (for a base for eggs) and bake well (for making cookies, etc). I haven’t found a great non dairy yogurt, cream cheese, or cheese, but when we do homemade pizza night, I load my half up with sauce and toppings and call it a day! Most pizza places will also happily accommodate a request for a pizza or half a pie to be cheeseless.

    It’s great you’ve embraced black coffee (I have not!) and I hope you find similar shifts toward dairy free eating manageable!

  14. I had to stop drinking Diet Pepsi (and all carbonated drinks) for a surgery that I had 2 years ago. Going from many cans per day to none was very difficult at first, but I was able to do it. I haven’t had any in about 2 1/2 years and don’t miss it at all!

  15. I have chronic sinusitis and need to look into a possible dairy connection. Heaven knows, I eat enough of it. A very good coffee to try is My Brother’s Keeper–Roxeann is my favorite–and part of the proceeds go to helping others.

  16. I’m here fighting the temptation to suggest tons of dairy alternatives (inside I’m like, “you dont have to go without!”), given that one of my kids has a dairy allergy. But I can see from what you wrote that you’re not really in need of substitutions – I’m pretty impressed by that!

    As far as changing a long-term habit, I haven’t found one that was as easy to switch as your cream on coffee, but fingers crossed I come across an easy switch like that someday!

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