What is a dairy-free diet?
If you are looking to go dairy-free for health or personal reasons, be ready to put away the pizza, frozen yogurt, and baked goods! Any milk that comes from an animal, including sheep, goat, cow, or human, is considered a dairy product. Therefore, all cheese, cream, butter, yogurt, and milk are not included in the diet.
Why go dairy-free?
There are several reasons an individual may choose to go dairy-free. Some of the most common reasons are gut irritation, lactose intolerance, milk protein allergy, veganism, or other cultural/religious beliefs.
Although going dairy-free may help resolve symptoms, dairy is a great source of several nutrients you could be missing from your diet.
Nutrients Should You Monitor
The daily recommended intake varies per gender and age. An overall guide according to the USDA can be found here. To summarize, we have higher calcium needs from age 9 to 18 and above 50 years old, especially for women. This is because calcium is vitally important to bone growth and development, as well as in the prevention of osteoporosis as we age.
Luckily, there are several non-dairy sources of calcium that can be included in a dairy-free diet. Tofu, almonds, and white beans are all high-protein foods that also contain calcium.
From the vegetable category, cooked spinach, okra, and broccoli can also bulk up your calcium intake for the day. In addition, several products are fortified with calcium including orange juice, cereal, oatmeal, and many alternative-based kinds of milk.
When consuming calcium, in whole food or supplement form, we need to be cautious of what we’re consuming with it. Unfortunately, several foods and beverages can bind to calcium during the digestive process, causing it to not be absorbed.
This may lead to kidney stones or bone deterioration over time. Therefore, it is advised to avoid consuming any of the following with calcium-rich foods or supplements:
- Tea – Although it contains other numerous health benefits, all tea contains certain compounds, such as oxalic acid, that limit calcium absorption.
- Caffeinated beverages – You may want to hold off on the yogurt parfait with your morning cup of coffee. Caffeine causes your kidneys to excrete more calcium from the body in addition to decreasing absorption.
- Whole grains and vegetables – This is not an excuse to skip your 4-5 servings of vegetables per day, but you may want to skip melting cheese on them! Whole grains and vegetables contain phytic acid, which reduces your body’s ability to absorb calcium, as well as zinc and iron.
2. Vitamin D
The best source of Vitamin D is the sun. However, due to the necessity of wearing sunscreen to prevent skin cancer, we are not able to absorb any from this source. Vitamin D is essential to bone building and has been linked to supporting our immune system through its anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties.
In our first year of life, we require 400 IU (international units) of Vitamin D followed by a recommended 600 IU daily until age 70 where it increases again to 800 IU. Dietary sources of Vitamin D are limited, especially when eliminating Vitamin D fortified milk.
Some of the more common non-dairy sources include 3 ounces of salmon at 570 IU or 1 egg at 44 IU. If you feel you are not consuming enough Vitamin D, you may consider starting an over-the-counter Vitamin D with a calcium supplement. Consult with your doctor ahead of time to test your Vitamin D levels to see if further supplementation is necessary.
3. Vitamin B-12
Another common deficiency outside of Vitamin D has frequently seen in adults is Vitamin B-12. With the daily recommended intake increasing as we get older, it can be difficult to consume adequate amounts of this vitamin, especially for vegetarians and vegans. Vitamin B-12 is vital to a healthy, functioning central nervous system.
Sources of Vitamin B-12 are mostly found in animal-based products, such as tuna, salmon, yogurt, eggs, and turkey. However, there are a few vegan-friendly sources including nutritional yeast, fortified breakfast cereal, and tempeh.
If you feel you are not consuming adequate amounts of Vitamin B-12, you may consider starting an over-the-counter multivitamin or B-complex vitamin. Consult with your doctor ahead of time before starting supplementation.
Recommended Fairy Substitutes
Today we have a large range of alternative kinds of milk to choose from. From cashew to coconut to hemp, the alternative milk market leaves us with numerous options. Warning: not all alternative kinds of milk are created equal (to regular milk that is)!
Although almond, oat, cashew, and coconut milk are typically fortified with the essential nutrients, they are a poor source of protein with only 2 grams per cup. If you are looking to get more protein into your diet, try plant-based pea protein milk, such as Ripple, or soy milk.
Hands down the hardest of the dairy products to give up, cheese substitutes can be hit or miss. With new products hitting the shelves, you may be in luck when looking for something to replace your favorite cheesy dish.
However, make sure you always check the source of the milk. If it contains almond milk, it will be lower in protein. In contrast, one made from tofu or soy will be higher, such as Tofutti cream cheese.
Although margarine has received a bad reputation from its previously high content of trans fat (more on this in a minute), there are some great alternative butter substitute spreads made from different oils.
Most name-brand margarine-type products offer versions of buttery spreads made from olive oil, canola oil, and other vegetable-based oils. Just make sure they contain zero grams of trans-fat, as this type of chemically made fat is very harmful to the human body.
Yogurt & Ice Cream
For all you fro-yo and ice cream fans out there, fear not! There is a large selection of yogurts and ice cream options from a variety of non-dairy sources. Similarly, to alternative kinds of milk, most yogurts made from almond, coconut, cashew, and other plant-derived sources are usually low in protein.
In addition, pay attention to the added sugar content. Some of these yogurts can have up to a whopping 13 or more grams per day. That 26% of the daily limit! As for ice cream, nothing is off the table. Even Ben & Jerry’s has jumped on the dairy-free bandwagon with their own line of products. Enjoy!
What Should You Pay Attention to When Grocery Shopping?
So, you have decided to go dairy-free and are ready to hit the grocery stores. You will need a little more information before hitting the aisles! One tip to make sure your item is dairy-free is to check the ingredient list on anything your purchase.
The following are just some of the words indicating the product contains dairy and should be avoided while following this diet:
- Casein, casein hydrolysate, caseinates
- Dry milk solids
Other hidden sources of dairy can be found in certain vitamins and supplements, chewing gum, baked goods, breaded frozen foods, sauces and dressings, processed meats, and even potato chips. Follow these guidelines and you will be a dairy-free expert in no time!
About the Author
Maggy Doherty is a Registered Dietitian and owner of her own nutrition private practice, Doherty Nutrition.
As a UCLA student-athlete on the Women’s Diving team, she learned how to use food to take her health and performance to the next level.
She earned her Master of Science in Nutrition at the University of Illinois and has practiced as a clinical dietitian at Dallas’ Parkland Hospital.