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Dairy-Free for Beginners: A Dietitian Written Guide to Go Sans Dairy

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Ready to ditch dairy for the animals, environment, health, etc?

Then you’ve come to the right place!

This Dietitian written article explains the ins and outs of going sans dairy in a nutritionally sound way. Lets go!

Disclaimer: This post is not providing personal medical advice. Always talk to your doctor before adding a supplement or making major dietary changes. See our Disclaimers for more details.

Consumer Notice: This post contains affiliate links that are marked in this manner: (affiliate link*)”. If you click on these links and purchase, I earn a commission at no added cost to you.

What is a Dairy-Free Diet?

Simply a diet that excludes a cow’s breastmilk (or more accurately called… udder milk?), or anything made derived from said milk (ie: cheese, yogurt, etc).

You will need to pay attention to the ingredients label to really know for sure (and if you have a dairy milk allergy, this is so incredibly crucial)!

In the US, if a food commercially sold food product contains milk, it must be declared in the allergen statement at the bottom of the ingredients list because dairy is on the the most common allergens.

While that’s usually the fastest way to detect a dairy product, this method might not always necessarily capture all sources of dairy.

For example, if you are buying food from a farmers market, an allergen statement may not be present. So, when in doubt ask questions! But you can typically assume the following products have dairy in them:

  • Milk
  • Cheese
  • Yogurt
  • Sour Cream
  • Cottage Cheese
  • Butter
  • Ghee
  • Alfredo Sauce
  • Ice Cream
  • Any food with milk derivatives (ex: lactose, whey, milk solids, etc).

Alright, so now that we know how to avoid dairy, aside from a milk allergy, why would someone want to give up dairy in the first place?

Graphic showing foods to not eat on a dairy free diet, included in text as well.

Benefits of a Diet Sans Dairy

Going dairy-free may have several benefits if you are replacing dairy products with the right healthy nutrient rich foods.

We’ll cover some of those nutrients in the next section. First, lets discus the benefits of taking ditching dairy.

Ditching dairy might help with:

1. Upset Stomach

Feeling bloated, gassy, or experiencing diarrhea after that glass of milk? You may have lactose intolerance, and if your doctor diagnoses you with it – you are not alone!

A shocking statistic: About 2/3’s of the worlds population may have lactose intolerance, or difficulty absorbing the sugar found in milk (lactose), leading to rather uncomfortable symptoms.

If that sounds like you, eliminating dairy products or at least reducing/eliminating high lactose dairy products may be all it takes to cause those uncomfortable symptoms to go away.

2. Acne

Some research suggests milk may contribute to acne. One cross sectional study involving 24,452 adults showed that milk was associated with acne in adults. However, other foods were associated with acne as well, including sugary beverages.

So if you have been battling with acne and have tried other methods to get rid of it, talk to your doctor about trialing a sans dairy for a set period of time might be worthwhile to see if it has an effect on your acne.

3. Reduce Environmental Damage

According to one report by the World Resource Institute, dairy products may be as bad for the environment as poultry and pork combined. Dairy cow manure produces methane and nitrous oxide emissions (aka, carbon emissions that contribute to environmental deterioration). 

But hey, its easy enough to say “go dairy free” for the environment. What we really should be saying is: Go dairy free and reduce your impact by choosing foods to replace dairy that have a lower carbon footprint.

Replace dairy with beans? You probably going to lower your carbon footprint! But replace dairy with beef? You’re might just have the opposite effect.

4. Decrease Animal Suffering

Did you know that dairy cows are born with horns? Perhaps this is embarrassing to admit, but I did not know that until I pursued a vegan diet!

Why is it that I didn’t know this fact? Simply put, I never thought about it. Many advertisements about dairy feature cows without any horns. This is just one of the many common and cruel practices of the dairy industry: dairy cows are commonly dethroned without anesthesia.

Another thing I didn’t know until I pursued a vegan diet?

The typical journey of the dairy cow in the US. This discovery would be the reason I finally became a vegan.

Food Empowerment Project insightfully details the life of a dairy cow, and to be frank, it’s not an easy read. However, I am so glad I learned about it, because (maybe you can relate) its easy to feel so far removed from where food comes from. 

Some big takeaways from the article that pushed me to ditch dairy:

  • Dairy cows are forcibly impregnated. Once they give birth, they are separated from their offspring. And may cry out to each other for hours, days, or even weeks.
  • Male calves are often raised for veal production, meaning they are slaughtered at a young age. Female calves suffer the same fate as their mothers: continued forced impregnation for continued milk production. Many dairy cows continue producing milk through subsequent pregnancies.
  • Dairy cows may frequently contract mastitis, a painful infection of the udders that typically requires antibiotics.
  • *Dairy cows repeat this unpleasant cycle until they are considered “unusable.” The average dairy cow might live for 25 years, but only after about 2-4 years of milk production, they are often viewed as invaluable and slaughtered.

Tears welled up in my eyes as I type these words, and I know its just as hard for you to read as it is for me to type. Check out the full article by the Food Empowerment Project to learn and discover how going dairy free can help.

Wheef! Now that you know of 7 reasons to go dairy free, are you fired up? Great!

Next, we’ll discus the key nutrients in dairy, and how you can get them without any milk, cheese or yogurt.

Dairy Nutrients and Ways to Get Them Without Eating Dairy

Lets face it, there’s a reason dairy receives so much hype. From nutritionists to organizations, dairy is often promoted as containing essential nutrients necessary for health.

But… If you have been reading so far, I hope the main thing you take away from this article is that you likely don’t need dairy.

If your heart is telling you to take dairy out of your life for animal rights or sustainability reasons,  I am here to tell you that you absolutely can have a healthy dairy free diet.

However, in order to have a healthy diet, you should make an effort replace dairy with foods rich in dairy containing nutrients.

Lets go over some of them in detail!

Calcium

By far this nutrient is probably the one that most people are concerned about when going dairy-free for beginners. Why? Probably because of marketing that has been going on for decades.

Milk is a excellent source of calcium which is needed for bone health…. sound familiar?

Well, they might be right about the the calcium portion!

In the USA, a “Good Source” of a certain nutrient means the nutrient must be at least 20% the daily value. At around 300 milligrams of calcium per cup, milk is a good source of calcium (per the definition).

But there are many ways to get calcium that involve dairy free alternatives. Lets learn!

  • RDA For Calcium (Recommended Dietary Allowance): 1,000 milligrams of calcium per day for adults aged 19-50 years, who are not pregnant or lactating.
  • Why Do I Need It? Calcium is important for many things, including strong bones, teeth, and muscle function.
  • How Can I Get it With Dairy-Free Foods? It is possible to get enough calcium from non dairy sources.

    The key to adequate calcium intake is including plenty of calcium rich dairy free and/or plant based foods in your diet, and talking to your doctor if you have further concerns.

    Calcium rich sources include (not a comprehensive list):
  • Animal Products With Calcium:

    Salmon and sardines with bones.  

  • Plant Based Foods Higher in Calcium:
    -Calcium set tofu
    -Certain calcium fortified plant based milk, yogurt and cheese (always check the label first though).
    -Low oxalate green vegetables (examples: broccoli, kale, turnip greens, bok choy)

  • Plant Based Foods Moderate in Calcium:
    -White beans
    -Almonds
    -Tahini
    -Figs
    -Oranges

As an FYI: The bioavailability of the moderate plant based foods is not as high as the higher calcium category.

Also, certain greens such as spinach contain oxalic acid, which binds much of the calcium. Don’t count on them as contributing a significant amount of calcium in your diet.

In Summary: Familiarize yourself with alternative source of calcium, so that when you ditch the dairy, you don’t ditch adequate calcium intake! Animal products like sardines, and plant based products like calcium set tofu have decent amounts of calcium.

If you are concerned about your calcium intake on a dairy free diet, talk to your doctor.

Graphic showing non dairy foods that contain calcium.

Vitamin D

Milk is one of those few foods that often has vitamin D is added too it in the US. Notice the emphasis on added! If milk was not vitamin D fortified, it would probably wouldn’t be a notable source of vitamin D.

  • RDA For Vitamin D: 600 IU (international units) for adults aged 19-50 years old.
  • Why do we need it? Vitamin D is an essential nutrient – meaning, we need to ingest or absorb through adequate sunlight. It has many functions in the body including aiding in the absorption of calcium, maintaining bones, and in immune health.

    Vitamin D deficiency is one of the more common nutrient deficiencies in the US. While it would seem relatively simple to just go outside to get your vitamin D, it’s a bit more complicated than that.

    Depending on many factors, such as: How much time you spend outside, where you live, or how dark or light your skin is, etc, your absorption can vary. Not to mention the concerns with absorbing too much the sun rays!

  • How Can I Get it Without Dairy? The great news is that many of us don’t need milk to get enough vitamin D. In fact, you would need several cups of milk per day to it meet the vitamin D RDA for adults!

    Vitamin D can naturally be found in foods such as salmon and mushrooms, but most of us aren’t eating salmon or mushrooms every day (nor eating a big enough serving to get enough vitamin D).

    A better insurance policy may be to take a supplement especially if you live in a climate that has very little sunlight or you stay inside most of the day. Talk to your doctor about getting your vitamin D levels checked and supplementation as appropriate.

In Summary: Vitamin D insufficiency is common in the US. Since it may be difficult to meet your needs through food alone, consider talking to your doctor about getting your levels checked and appropriate supplementation.  

Vitamin B12

When you go dairy-free, know that milk may have been one of your most significant source of vitamin B12!

  • RDA For Vitamin B12: 2.4 micrograms of Vitamin B12 per day for non pregnant/non lactating adults at/over 19 years old.
  • Why Do I Need it? If you continually fall short on this vitamin, you may eventually develop anemia, neurological problems, or even dementia.
  • How Can I Get it With Dairy-Free Foods? Other animal products like meat, fish have vitamin B12, and there are a even some fortified plant based options as well.

    But there are many factors that might mean you need more of this essential vitamin, such as consuming a vegetarian or vegan diet, older age, having a gastrointestinal (GI)or malabsorption disorder, GI surgery, or reduced production of intrinsic factor (a protein made in the stomach that helps you absorb vitamin B12).

    So talk to your doctor if a vitamin B12 supplement is right for you.

In Summary: When you ditch dairy, make sure you talk to your doctor about vitamin B12! He/she can help you decide if supplementation is right for you.

Protein

  • Why Do I Need It? Protein is a critical component of our body cells. At 7 or more grams of protein per serving, milk and yogurt pack a protein punch.

    if dairy is the last animal product you are giving up before going fully plant based, you might be wondering, where will I get my protein?

    But that doesn’t have to be the case!
  • How Can I Get it With Dairy-Free Foods? Most of us know that meat and fish contain a decent amount of protein, but did you plant based protein sources do as well?

    Here’s a few examples:

    Soybeans, cooked (1/2 cup, about 11 grams of protein)
    -Peanuts (1/4 cup, approx 9 grams of protein)
    -Pumpkin and Squash Seed Kernels ( around 9 grams of protein)
    -Black Turtle Beans, cooked (1/2 cup, about 7.5 grams of protein)

    If you are plant based, it is possible to get enough protein, but there are certain things you will want to keep in mind! Learn more in our our article Vegan for Beginners. And if you are concerned about your protein intake, talk to your doctor and Registered Dietitian.

In Summary: There are a plethora of options both via dairy free animal and vegan foods when going dairy free! Of course, if you have higher protein or are concerned about your intake, talk to your own doctor and Registered Dietitian.

Iodine

Ok, so you probably heard that dairy is a good source of calcium, but you may not have known it is one of the major sources of iodine in the USA!

While milk can be a significant source, iodine content will vary depending on what the cows were fed or how the udders were sanitized (iodine-based cleaners are often used in the US based dairy industry).

So what’s the deal with iodine, why do we need it, and why am I only hearing about it now?

  • RDA For Iodine: 150 micrograms of iodine per day for non pregnant/ non lactating adults aged 19 years and older.
  • Why do I Need It? Iodine is critical for the normal functioning of the thyroid gland. This gland located in the neck secretes thyroid hormones that are important for normal metabolism. Iodine deficiency could lead to problems such as goiters and hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid).

  • How Can I Get It With Dairy Free Foods? Other sources of iodine include certain types of fish, oysters, iodized salt, and seaweed (Be wary of high doses of certain sea vegetables, as they too much iodine can cause thyroid dysfunction).

    Check out our article, Vegan Iodine Sources to learn more about plant based options!

    Perhaps you suspect don’t eat enough iodine via these sources, though. Talk to your doctor about whether or not iodine supplementation is right for you.
Graphic showing sources of iodine sans dairy.

In Summary: Iodine may be a tough nutrient to get enough of when you ditch dairy. While there are some food sources with higher amounts of iodine, some (such as certain sea vegetables) may have too much.

Its a good idea to talk to your doctor about your dairy free diet and whether or not you might need a iodine supplement.

Vitamin A

Vitamin A is another nutrient that is often added to milk in the US!

  • RDA for Vitamin A: Adult Males (aged 19 – 50 years): 900 mcg RAE.
    Adult females (aged 19-50 years) that are not pregnant or lactating: 700 mcg RAE.
  • Why do I Need it? Ever heard that you need this essential nutrient for eye health? That’s right! Vitamin A is also important for immune system health, reproduction, and proper cell functioning in addition to eyesight!
  • How Can I Get it With Dairy Free Foods? Certain foods, like beef liver and pickled Atlantic herring have preformed vitamin A, while plant foods, mainly have provitamin A. Good sources of provitamin A include namely include orange to red hued vegetables, like carrots and sweet potatoes.

    One study suggests that about 45% of the certain individuals may not absorb as much beta carotene or convert it efficiently to active vitamin A. This can certainly pose a problem to vegans who may not consume preformed vitamin A.

    Eating plenty of beta carotene rich furits and veggies, and including some fat with those foods may help with absoprption, but talk to your doctor if you have any concerns.

    Learn more Vegans, Vitamin A Needs to be on Your Radar!

In Summary: There are several foods that can help you meet your vitamin A needs, such as pickled Atlantic herring, and orange vegetables. Some people may not convert plant based beta carotene as efficiently to active vitamin A. So talk to your doctor if you have concerns.

How To Make a Dairy-Free Diet Plan

Pumped up to start that dairy free diet?

Good news: if you made it this far, you are now that much more educated about nutrients you need to keep in mind when you exclude dairy! Now comes the part that really counts….

Make it a part of your lifestyle 

But how do you do that? Here’s some tips!

Ease Into a Dairy-Free Meal Plan

If you have a hard time giving up dairy completely, you could gradually reduce your dairy intake.

Here are some ideas to ease into the dairy free lifestyle:

  • Make a list of your dairy staples and focus on changing one thing per week.

 For example: if you use 2% milk on your cereal everyday, you could replace it with a plant based milk.

But which one should you try? Coconut milk or soy milk? Some other other option?

That’s a whole other topic, that we go into more detail with in our article Plant Based Milks Brands, so check it out!

Another one: If you usually top your pizza with cheese, consider a vegan version!

There are so many dairy free recipes on the internet! We enjoyed this cashew based Mozzarella Aquafaba “Cheese” by Avocados and Ales.
FYI: I skipped the carrageenan, used lemon juice instead of lactic acid, and vegan margarine instead of coconut oil, and it was still so tasty! Even my cheese loving hubby approved!

  • Take dairy out of just one meal or snack a week, the make it two, then three, etc.

For example, you could eat dairy free breakfasts for one week, then dairy free breakfasts and lunches the next week, and finally, dairy free breakfasts, lunches, and dinners the third week.

  • Use half the amount of dairy in your go to recipes, and replace the rest with non-dairy alternatives, gradually decrease the amount until you have completely ditched dairy.

For example: If you love lasagna, you could potentially use half ricotta cheese and replace the other half with a on dairy option, like “tofu ricotta cheese!” Not bad? Next time you make it, try a full-on nondairy lasagna!

Get the theme here? We are gradually replacing the dairy with non-dairy foods.

Whatever way you choose, just don’t forget those nutrients that you were previously getting in dairy! Many of them come from whole non dairy foods, but some might come from fortified alternatives as well.

Speaking of alternatives to dairy, let’s take a minute to talk about the elephant in the room:

Be Wary of Certain Milk, Cheese (including cream cheese) and Yogurt Non dairy Substitutes

Don’t be fooled! Dairy substitutes like non dairy milk, cheese and yogurt do not have the same (or at least all) nutrients as dairy. At least based on what we have noticed is commercially available in the US.

So while many of them may taste like the a cheese or yogurt, they are usually lacking in the nutrients, like iodine, and vitamin B12

So don’t make the mistake of just swapping out your dairy milk for almond milk!

Fortified versions may have some calcium, but as we just learned, there are a plethora of other nutrients to consider when you go sans dairy !

So check the nutrition facts panel, and if you do decide to purchase, just know that you may need to get certain nutrients elsewhere!

Which brings us to our next point that is worth repeating…

Don’t Forget To Eat Your Nutrients!

Consumer Notice: This section contains affiliate links that are marked in this manner: (affiliate link*)”. If you click on these links and purchase, I earn a commission at no added cost to you.

We just learned that there are alot of vitamins and minerals you may need to keep on your radar when giving up dairy.

One way to get an idea of your nutrient intake? Using a food tracking app, like Cronometer (affiliate link*)!

This food tracking program is awesome because it has a huge food data base, space to enter your own recipes, and provides lots of nutrient info

Yes, it may involve some measuring and time, but the good news is, you shouldn’t have to track forever!

So don’t forget to sign up for the free version of Cronometer here (affiliate link*).

And finally, as an ideal scenario, consider talking to a Registered Dietitian if you need extra help figuring out how to go dairy-free.

Dairy-Free For Beginners: Summing It Up

There are many reasons to go dairy-free! Make sure you familiarize yourself with the nutrients in dairy and ways to get them without cows milk and its associated products.

Going sans dairy can be hard, especially if done all at once! Trying a more gradual approach may be helpful.

And lastly, if you have any concerns or want guidance, set up a consult with a Registered Dietitian.

We hope you found this article helpful! Sign up for our e-mail list so you don’t miss out on new posts.

And since your still here, why not poke around on our blog? We cover a plethora of topics from Weight Loss on a Vegan Diet, to Plant Based Diet Books.


What are some of your favorite dairy-free snacks? Let us know in the comments below, and may the fork be with you…

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