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Dairy-Free for Beginners: The Ultimate Guide to go Sans Diary

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Are you wanting to ditch diary for health or ethical reasons? Then you’ve come to the right place!

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

What is a No Dairy-Free Diet?

A no dairy diet is simply a diet that excludes a cow’s breastmilk (or more accurately called… udder milk?), or anything made with it (ie: cheese, yogurt, etc).

You will need to pay attention to the ingredients label to really determine if there is any form of dairy.

In the US, milk must be declared at the bottom of the ingredients list because it is a common allergen.

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

For example, if you are buying food from a farmers market, an allergen statement may not always 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, why would someone want to give up dairy in the first place?

Graphic of dairy foods not not include in a dairy free diet.

Benefits of a Diet Sans Dairy

Going dairy-free has many benefits if you are replacing dairy products with the right nutrient rich foods. We’ll cover all those nutrients you’ll need to pay attention to when you 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 that sounds like you, you are in good company.

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/elminating high lactose dairy products may be all it takes to cause those uncomfortable symptoms to go away.

2. Antibiotics

Cows get sick, just like we do. As a result, sometimes they need antibiotics.

Antibiotics may be used if a cow has an infection that requires antibiotics. Mastitis (infection of breast tissue) is one example. While milk sold in the US is not supposed to have any trace of antibiotics, not all antibiotics are required to be tested. Unfortunately, drugs, and illegal antibiotic use in cows has been detected in the past.

While it is not yet clear what impact this may have on human health, concerns such as antibiotic resistance and cancer has been suggested. For further information, on this potential issue, check out this peer reviewed study here.

3. Hormones

Milk has hormones whether or not the cow was treated with hormones. Why? Lets remember where milk comes from: lactating cows.

Just like humans, cows produce hormones when lactating (ex: progesterone), of which, some ends up in the milk as well.

The hormones found in your milk increase if the cow is both lactating and pregnant. This is the fate of many dairy cows because the demand for milk at a premium price means a demand for the most “efficient production.”

What’s the harm? Milk was designed for a baby cow to grow into an adult cow. This growth is  many times larger than the growth of a human.

In other words, the hormones produced are in support of exponential growth, many times, in conjunction with pregnancy hormones.

Too much estrogen in the diet increases your risk for estrogen dominant cancers. (ie: ovarian, breast, prostate).

Too much IGF-1 (hormones found in milk) has been associated with certain types of cancer, such as breast and prostate cancer. So it is possible that 3 cups per day of milk may not be the best choice to reduce your risk of certain types of cancers.

4. Acne

There is good reason to believe that 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, it may be worth a try to take dairy out of your diet to see if your acne clears up.

5. Heart Disease

Replacing saturated dairy fat with polyunsaturated plant based sources of fat may reduce your risk of developing cardiovascular disease, the number one killer in America. How? By reducing LDL (bad cholesterol) levels- a factor associated with heart disease.

Its important to note that not all vegetable fats are created equal! Replacing cheese with highly saturated palm oil? Hmm, maybe not the healthiest substitute. But replace that same amount of cheese with the same amount of healthy fat, like avocado? Now your talking!

6. 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 are going to lower your carbon footprint! But replace dairy with beef? You’re probably going to raise it.

7. 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 grateful for it, because (maybe you can relate) sometimes I feel so far removed from where my 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.

Diary Nutrients and How to Get Them Without Milk

Lets face it, there’s a reason diary receives so much hype. From nutritionists to organizations, dairy is promoted as containing essential nutrients that are needed 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.

Those key nutrients are:

Calcium

By far this nutrient is the one that most people are concerned about when going sans dairy. 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? You know, they are right… about calcium!

n the US, the claim “Good source” of a certain nutrient means that the nutrient must contain at least  20% the daily value. At 300 milligrams (30% daily value) of calcium per cup, milk is a good source of calcium (per the definition).

  • Why Do I Need It? Calcium is important for strong bones, teeth, and muscle contraction.
  • How Can I Get it Without Dairy? It is possible to get enough calcium form non dairy sources. In fact, it may be may be a healthier option, as we just talked about in the last section (undoubtedly healthier for the animals!).

    The key to adequate calcium intake is including plenty of calcium rich dairy free and/or plant based foods in your diet. They include:
  • Animal Products With Calcium:

    -Salmon and Sardines with bones.  

  • Plant Based Foods High in Calcium:
    -Calcium set tofu
    -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: 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.

  • Will I Need a Supplement? It’s unlikely that you would need to supplement for calcium if you are regularly including food sources that are high in calcium. Talk to your doctor if you are concerned about your calcium needs.
  • RDA: 1,000 milligrams of calcium per day for adults aged 19-50 years, who are not pregnant or lactating.



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.

Graphic showing non dairy foods that contain calcium.

Vitamin D

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.

Milk is one of those few foods that has vitamin D is added too it. Noticed the emphasis on added! If milk was not vitamin D fortified, it would not be a significant source of vitamin D.

  • Why do we need it? Vitamin D is a essential vitamin (actually a hormone) that 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, immune system, and muscles functions.

    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, your absorption can vary. Not to mention the concerns with absorbing too much of the sun rays!

  • How Can I Get It Without Dairy? The great news is that you really don’t need milk to get enough vitamin D. In fact, you would need about 5-6 cups of milk per day to it meet the RDA (Recommended Daily Allowance) for vitamin D!

    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).

  • Will I Need a Supplement? While you could meticulously plan your diet to get adequate 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.

Pure Encapsulations offers a liquid vegan vitamin D3 supplement that has a dropper so you can easily tailor your dose. I really like this brand because they utilize third party lab testing (something not all supplement companies do), and many of their supplements are free from several of the common allergens.

Check it out below (affiliate link*):

  • RDA: 20 micrograms of Vitamin D per day for adults aged 19-70 years old that are not pregnant or lactating.


In Summary: Vitamin D Deficiency is common among both dairy and non-dairy consumers. Since it may be difficult to meet your needs through food alone, consider supplementing. Talk to your doctor about getting your levels checked and appropriate supplementation.  

Vitamin B12

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

  • Why Do I Need it? If you continually fall short on this vitamin, you may eventually develop anemia, neurological problems, depression or even dementia.
  • How Can I Get it Without Dairy? Still eating lots of fish, meat, and eggs? You probably get enough vitamin B12, but its not a bad idea to get your levels checked and supplement at the advice of your doctor.
  • Will I Need a Supplement? If dairy products are the last thing holding you back from a vegan diet, you will either need to meet your vitamin B12 needs through fortified foods or supplementation (talk to your doctor about adding any new supplement). This is because the only foods naturally rich in vitamin B12 are animal products.

    Check out VeganHealth.org for an idea of your requirements.   
  • RDA: 2.4 micrograms of Vitamin B12 per day for non pregnant/non lactating adults.

    In Summary: if you are significantly reducing animal products, you will need to make sure you get a reliable source of vitamin B12. Talk to your doctor about a supplementing.

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 Without Dairy? There are plenty of plant based protein sources that are just as high (or higher) in protein, including:

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

  • Will I Need a Supplement? Probably not, especially if you are eating enough and a wide variety, but talk to a Registered Dietitian if you are concerned about your needs.

    Of course, you will want to make sure you get the right amount of protein, which you can read all about here in my article Can Humans Survive Without Meat?

    In Summary: If you have ditched dairy, but still include meat and fish regularly, you probably don’t need to give protein another thought. But if you are substantially decreasing all animal product consumption, make room on your plate for beans, lentils, soy, chickpeas and peas. Check out my article Vegan For Beginners for more tips.

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!

One cup of nonfat milk contains about 57% the daily value of iodine. However, 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?

  • 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 a healthy brain, and many other reactions in the body. Iodine deficiency could lead to goiters, fatigue, and weight gain.

  • How Can I Get It Without Dairy? While iodine deficiency is relatively rare in the United states, possibly due (in part) to fortification of iodine in iodized salt, perhaps you don’t want to meet your iodine needs through salt because you are concerned about getting too much sodium. After all, most health authorities agree that too much sodium is not great for most of us.  


So what is someone to do if they want to ditch one of the major sources of Iodine available? If you are ditching dairy, you can still get sufficient iodine by including 150 mcg of iodine in your diet from the following:

-Fish
-Iodized salt
-Iodine supplement
-Sea vegetables (FYI: While seaweed contains lots of iodine, currently, iodine content is not required to be listed on these products. Depending on the amount you eat, you easily exceed the RDA. So, its probably not the best to rely on seaweed to meet your iodine needs.

  • RDA: 150 micrograms of iodine per day for non pregnant/ non lactating adults.
Graphic showing sources of iodine sans dairy.
  • Will I Need a Supplement? If you are not a fan of fish, seafood, or the extra sodium from iodized salt, talk to your doctor bout adding a iodine supplement.


Be wary of high doses, as they too much iodine can cause thyroid dysfunction.

One last tip: Some reports suggest kelp based supplements contain more iodine than the amount listed.

In Summary: Iodine is  becoming a nutrient of concern for people of all dietary patterns. If you are ditching dairy but still eating the following (or a combination of) fish, seaweed and/or iodized salt on a regular basis, you’ll probably meet your iodine needs.

However, if you are nearly vegan, and don’t like sea vegetables or the idea of adding salt in the form of ionized salt, talk to your doctor about an iodine supplement.  

Diary Free Diet Plan

Pumped up to start that dairy free diet? Good news: Read this far? Great! Now you are more educated about nutrients you need to include when you exclude dairy! Now comes the part that really counts….

   Make it a part of your lifestyle 

What does that look like? 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, replace it with soymilk.

Another one: If you usually top your pizza with cheese, try a vegan version, like 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, 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 (focusing on whole foods specifically for the nutrients!).

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

Cheese and Yogurt non dairy Substitutes

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.

Don’t be fooled! Dairy substitutes like non dairy milk, cheese and yogurt do not have the same nutrients as dairy at least not from what I have seen in the US.

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

So don’t make the mistake of just swapping out your dairy milk for almond milk. While they may have similar calcium and vitamin D levels, you may need to add some a good source of iodine or an iodine supplement (always talk to your doctor before adding any supplement) to replace the nutrients you would have from drinking dairy milk.

Replacing diary nutrients with whole foods would be ideal, but talk to a Registered Dietitian if yo are still concerned.

Another great tip? Use a food tracking app like Cronometer to track your nutrient intake!

Why do I love 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 you with in depth nutrient information.

Yes, it may involve some measuring and time, but the good news is, you shouldn’t have to track forever! Once you get familiar with the what a nutritionally sound day or week looks like, you are equipped with carrying on those habits without tracking. So don’t forget to sign up for the free version of Cronometer here (affiliate link*).

In Conclusion: There are many valid reasons to go dairy-free. Make sure you familiarize yourself with the nutrients in dairy and ways to get them without cows milk.

Going sans dairy can be hard, especially if done all at once! Try a more gradual approach if you struggle with going cold turkey.



Need some more encouragement and fun tips for ditching dairy?

Great! Keep that momentum going by signing up for my e-mail list here! You’ll receive more plant powered support for your dairy free journey.

I’m also on Instagram and Facebook, so be sure to say hi there as well.

Did you find this content helpful? Anything I missed? Let me know in the comments below, and have a plant-astic day!



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