Whether you want to go dairy-free for the animals or environment, our beginners guide is for you!
This Dietitian written article explains the ins and outs of going sans dairy with nutrition in mind. Lets go!
Disclaimer: This post is not providing personal dietary or medical advice. Always talk to your doctor before adding a supplement or making major dietary changes. See our Disclaimers for more details.
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This post was originally published on 10/26/21. The updated date is listed above.
What is a Dairy-Free Diet?
Simply a diet that excludes a cow’s udder milk, or anything made from dairy milk (ie: cheese, yogurt, etc).
You will need to pay attention to the ingredients label to really know for sure. If you have a dairy milk allergy, this is so incredibly crucial!
If a product contains milk in the USA, it should be declared in the allergen statement at the bottom of the ingredients list(1). This is because dairy is one of the most common food allergens.
While that’s usually the fastest way to detect a dairy, this method might not capture all dairy sources.
For example, if you are buying food from a farmers market, an allergen statement may not be present. So when in doubt, ask questions!
You can typically assume the following products have dairy in them:
- Sour Cream
- Cottage Cheese
- Alfredo Sauce
- Ice Cream
- Any food with milk derivatives (ex: lactose, whey, milk solids, etc).
But now you might be asking: why would anyone want to give up that creaminess of milk (aside from a milk allergy)?
Lets talk about that next!
Benefits of a Diet Sans Dairy
Deciding to go sans dairy could:
- Minimize upset stomach – perhaps
- Decrease acne – maybe (for milk)
- Lower the risk of prostate cancer – promising (for milk)
- Benefit the environment – likely
- Reduce animal suffering – quite confidently
In order for these benefits to be truly advantageous, you should replace dairy products with the appropriate nutrient dense foods.
We’ll go over examples later, so stick with me!
First, lets dig deeper into those benefits of ditching dairy.
Going sans dairy could:
1. Minimize Upset Stomach – Perhaps
Feeling bloated, gassy, or experiencing diarrhea after that glass of milk? You may have lactose intolerance-or perhaps more properly termed: “lactose normal“(this is a term coined by Food Empowerment Project).
Why? here’s a shocking statistic: About two thirds of the world population may have what is popularly termed lactose intolerance(2).
This means most of us have difficulty utilizing the sugar found in milk (lactose), which could lead to rather uncomfortable symptoms, such as gas and bloating.
If that sounds like you, eliminating or reducing certain dairy products could be all it takes to cause those uncomfortable symptoms to go away.
Talk to your doctor if you think that dairy may be causing your stomach woes.
2. Decrease Acne – Maybe (for milk)
Some research suggests milk may contribute to acne. One cross sectional study involving 24,452 French adults suggests that milk consumption was associated with acne in adults(3).
However, this study does not equal causation, other foods were associated with acne as well (such as sugary beverages), and they did not look at other dairy products, such as cheese and yogurt.
So if you have been battling with acne and tried just about everything, it might be worthwhile to talk to your doctor about a trial of dairy free living.
3. Reduce The Risk Of Prostate Cancer – Promising (for milk)
A recent prospective cohort study involving 28,737 Seventh-Day Adventist men, suggests that higher when compared to lower milk intake (as assessed in the study) may be associated with a greater risk of prostate cancer.
Like most observational studies this one has several limitations, including that dietary recalls can be so garn difficult!
However, if you are trying to lower your risk of prostate cancer, cutting out dairy milk appears to be a good topic of discussion with your doctor.
4. Benefit the Environment – Likely
According to one report by the World Resources Institute, dairy products may emit more green house gas emissions and use more land than poultry or pork(4).
But hey, its easy enough to say “go dairy free” for the environment!
What we really should be saying is about eco food choices is: Choose nutritionally appropriate foods that replace dairy and have a lower carbon footprint.
Replace dairy with soymilk? You’re probably going to lower your carbon footprint(5)! But replace dairy with beef? You’re might just have the opposite effect.
5. Reduce Animal Suffering -Quite Confidently
Did you know that dairy cows are born with horns?
Perhaps this is embarrassing to admit, but I didn’t 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: some sources suggest that cows are commonly dehorned without anesthesia(6).
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 this journey, and to be frank-it’s not an easy read.
However, I am so glad I learned about it because (and maybe you can relate), it’s 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. They may cry out to each other for up to 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 repeat this unpleasant cycle until they are considered “unusable.” While some may have lived for about 20 years, after only about 2.5-4 years of milk production, they are often viewed as invaluable and slaughtered.
Tears welled up in my eyes as I type these words.
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 for more about the life of a dairy cow.
Now that you know of 5 reasons to go dairy free, are ready to learn how to actually do it with nutrition in mind?
You’re in luck, because you are about to read a Dietitian written “how to” guide that will rock the yogurt out of your fridge (well, at least the dairy containing kind 😉 ).
How To Go Dairy-Free For Beginners
While swapping plant based “cheese instead of cheese sounds simple enough, ditching dairy in a nutritionally sound way will take some more planning.
For those who want short and sweet, check out a summary of the steps below.
But I highly recommend reading the whole article to get more educated on each point!
- Make a Dairy Free Meal Plan.
This involves including the foods rich in nutrients you would have received from dairy products, and incorporating them in your eating pattern.
- Learn about nutrients in dairy through non dairy sources.
Nutrients to be mindful of include: calcium, vitamin D, vitamin B12, protein, iodine, and vitamin A (we’ll go over them in more detail below)!
- Get Support!
If you get stuck, a Registered Dietitian can help!
1. Learn about nutrients in dairy (and how to get them through non dairy sources).
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 that a dairy free diet absolutely can be healthy.
You just need to make an effort replace dairy with foods in those nutrients you were previously getting from dairy.
Lets talk about them!
If you are like most Americans, you probably get the majority of your calcium from dairy products(7).
In the USA, a “Good Source” of a certain nutrient means the nutrient must be at least 10-19% the daily value of that vitamin or mineral(8). At around 300 milligrams of calcium per cup, milk is about 20% the daily value for calcium.
But there are many ways to get calcium that involve dairy free alternatives (no cows milk required). Lets learn!
- RDA (Recommended Dietary Allowance For Calcium (Recommended Dietary Allowance): 1,000 milligrams of calcium per day for adults aged 19-50 years, who are not pregnant or lactating(9).
- Why Do We Need It? Calcium is important for many things, including bones and teeth structure, and muscle function.
- How Can I Get it Without Dairy ?
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(7)
- Plant Based Foods Higher in Calcium:
–Calcium set tofu
–Calcium fortified plant based milk, yogurt and cheese
-Low oxalate green vegetables (examples: broccoli, kale, turnip greens, bok choy)
- Plant Based Foods Moderate in Calcium(10):
As an FYI: The calcium from the plant based foods higher in calcium (listed above) tends to be more easily absorbed than the moderate calcium foods.
Also, certain greens such as spinach contain oxalic acid, which binds much of the calcium(11). Don’t count on them as contributing a significant amount of calcium in your diet.
Milk is one of those few foods that often has vitamin D is added to it in the US. Notice the emphasis on added! If milk was not vitamin D fortified, it probably wouldn’t be a notable source of vitamin D.
- RDA For Vitamin D: 600 IU (international units) of Vitamin D per day for adults aged 19-50 years old(12).
- Why Do We Need It? Vitamin D 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.
- How Can I Get it Without Dairy? 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, and some foods are fortified with it, but most of us aren’t eating salmon or mushrooms every day (nor eating a big enough serving to meet the RDA).
A better insurance policy may be to take a supplement. Especially if you live in a climate that has very little sunlight, you stay inside most of the day, or are cautious about sun exposure in general. Talk to your doctor about getting your vitamin D levels checked and supplementation as appropriate.
- RDA For Vitamin B12: 2.4 mcg (micrograms) of Vitamin B12 per day for non pregnant/non lactating adults at/over 19 years old(13).
- Why Do We Need it? Vitamin B12 is important for blood and nerves. If you continually fall short on this vitamin, you may eventually develop anemia and even neurological problems(13).
- How Can I Get it Without Dairy? Animal products, like meat, fish, and eggs contain this vitamin. Some fortified foods also contain vitamin b12, but be sure to check the label!
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, especially if you are shifting to a plant based diet.
- Why Do We 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.
Luckily there are so many ways to get protein that don’t include dairy!
- How Can I Get it Without Dairy? Most of us know that meat and fish contain a decent amount of protein, but did you know that there are plenty of vegan options as well?
Here’s a few examples (Source: USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference Legacy (2018), FYI-protein grams have been rounded up as applicable):
–Soybeans, cooked (half a cup, about 11 grams of protein)
-Peanuts (one-fourth a cup, approx. 9 grams of protein)
-Pumpkin and Squash Seed Kernels ( one-fourth a cup, around 9 grams of protein)
-Black Turtle Beans, cooked (1/2 cup, about 7.5 grams of protein)
Check out our article Vegan for Beginners want to make a switch to 100% plant based. And if you are concerned about your protein intake, talk to your doctor and Registered Dietitian.
While milk can be a significant source of 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 (14).
- Why do We 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 metabolism. Iodine deficiency could lead to problems such as goiters and hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid(15).
- How Can I Get It Without Dairy? Other sources of iodine include certain types of fish, oysters, iodized salt, and sea vegetables. Be wary certain sea vegetables, and getting too much in general. They can contain too much iodine. Learn more about this and other plant based options in our about vegan sources of iodine!
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 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 (Retinol activity equivalents) per day
Adult Females (aged 19-50 years) that are not pregnant or lactating: 700 mcg RAE per day(16).
- Why do We 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 Without Dairy? 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(17).
Eating plenty of beta carotene rich fruits and veggies, and including some fat with those foods may help with absorption, but talk to your doctor if you have any concerns.
Learn more in our article about Vitamin A for Vegans!
2. Make a Dairy-Free Diet Plan
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!
1. Go for Gradual Swaps
FYI: This section contains an affiliate link marked in this manner: “(affiliate link*)”. If you click on the link and purchase, I earn a commission at no added cost to you.
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 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!
Another 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 or soy milk? Some other other option?
In my article about plant based milks, I go into depth about which nutrients to focus on if you want a milk that plant based milk that closely resembles milk. You can read all choosing plant based milks here.
My daughter and I love to drink Silk’s Unsweetened Soy Milk (affiliate link*). I like it because of it’s nutrition profile and flavor (doesn’t taste “beany” in my opinion).
But, there are several other great options out there!
- 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 from dairy!
Many of them come from whole non dairy foods (such as tofu), but some might come from fortified alternatives (ie: fortified soymilk) as well.
Speaking of alternatives to dairy, let’s take a minute to talk about the elephant in the room: mock dairy products, like ! Are they as good as dairy?
2. Be Wary of Cheese (including cream cheese) and Yogurt Non-dairy Substitutes
Dairy substitutes like non dairy cheese and yogurt (and even some of the plant based milks) 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 similar to dairy, they are usually lacking in the nutrients, like iodine, and vitamin B12.
That’s why its important to not make the mistake of just swapping out your dairy milk for almond milk!
Some plant based milks may be good source of calcium, but lack iodine for example. In that case, you’ll want to find some other source of iodine in your dairy-free kitchen.
3. Treat Your Cravings Without Dairy
Luckily for those who are dairy free, there are so many plant based substitutes and recipes for non-dairy ice cream, cheese, yogurt, you name it!
One note of caution: don’t expect them to taste exactly like the dairy product they are trying to mimic!
In my opinion, some do, but others straight up don’t, and that’s ok!
For example, while I’ve seen nutritional yeast described as having a nutty/cheesy flavor, many don’t think it tastes the just like parmesan cheese.
Again, that’s ok! It can still add umami notes to dishes.
And if you made it this far, it’s likely you aren’t giving up dairy for flavor.
Remember your why, and have fun discovering new flavors that you enjoy!
3. Get Support!
You just learned alot about the nutrients you may need to keep on your radar when giving up dairy.
If want to get an idea about how your intake is comparing to nutrient needs, check out Cronometer (affiliate link*)-as a reminder, this means if you click on the link and sign up or purchase, I earn a commission at no added cost to you)- a nutrient tracking app!
I like Cronometer 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!
And finally, food tracking apps are not substitutes for professional advice. Consider talking to a Registered Dietitian if you need extra help figuring out how to dairy-less.
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 it’s derivatives.
Going sans dairy can be hard, especially if done all at once! Trying a more gradual approach may be helpful.
And lastly, if you need help planning a diet without dairy, a Registered Dietitian can provide expert guidance.
We hope you found this article helpful! What are some of your favorite dairy-free snacks? Let us know in the comments below.
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