A Guide to Eating a Dairy-Free Diet

Drink milk? Paleos pass on it. So do vegans, of course, as do some vegetarians. And those who abide by “clean eating” guidelines are dairy-free as well.

But why would someone ever want to consider a dairy-free diet? (What? No ice cream??) Are there benefits to going dairy-free?

Before we get there, it’s important to note that not everyone needs to go dairy free. For many people, dairy is perfectly fine as part of a healthy diet. Dairy can provide a lean source of protein, such as reduced-fat, unsweetened plain Greek yogurt (2%).

Dairy is also a good source of calcium and vitamin D, which many people lack in adequate amounts in their diet. Fermented dairy products are also a good source of probiotics, which are beneficial for gut health.

But if you are considering saying bye-bye to Brie, let’s look at the benefits and pitfalls of removing dairy from your diet — and talk to experts about what you need to know before you go on a no-dairy diet.

dairy free, dairy free diet

What Is a Dairy-Free Diet?

A dairy-free diet is one that omits milk and all related products — from butter and ghee to milk, yogurt, and cheese. It would also exclude casein and whey proteins.

The motivation to adopt a dairy-free diet could be related to health, ethics, the environment, culture, or a particular way of eating, like the Paleo diet.

Here are some other foods to avoid on a dairy-free diet (and what not to eat when you’re lactose intolerant):

  • cream
  • half-and-half
  • ice cream
  • kefir
  • milk chocolate
  • sour cream
  • goat and sheep milk dairy products (sometimes, depending on the individual)

If you’re avoiding dairy, you will want to inquire about the ingredients in baked goods and read the labels of processed and packaged foods like dips, sauces, and soups.

At restaurants, dishes may contain butter or cream, so be sure to let your server know if you’re not eating dairy.

Dairy free diet, almond milk, milk alternative, non-dairy milk

Is a Dairy-Free Diet Right for You?

There are plenty of reasons you might want to find out whether a dairy-free diet is right for you. It may be that you don’t like it or you grew up in a culture where milk isn’t commonly consumed. Or perhaps you’re a vegan who avoids all animal products for ethical or environmental reasons.

You could be among those affected by lactose intolerance, the inability to process the natural sugar in milk and other dairy products, or you could have an allergy to milk or milk protein. And, there’s also the processing and production of milk and dairy — some dairy-free dieters are trying to avoid the growth hormones often found in conventional dairy products.

“There’s been growing discussion around the hormones in and pasteurization of dairy products and how they alter our milk and milk products,” says Lauren Minchen, R.D.N. (Did you know that organic milk contains 50 percent more omega-3s than conventional milk?)

Whatever our reasons for going dairy-free, there are more people skipping their morning milk, according to the US Department of Agriculture. We collectively drank 6 percent less milk in 2016 than we did in 2015, and in 2010, the USDA released a report that found the number of individuals drinking milk had “decreased significantly” since the late 1970s.

Meanwhile, dairy-free milk alternatives continued to gain traction, with almond milk leading the way, according to Nielsen’s 2015 Global Health and Wellness survey.

What Are the Benefits of a Dairy-Free Diet?

The benefits of a dairy-free diet will depend on your reasons for going dairy-free. If your reasons are environmental, the benefits may be intangible, for example. Minchen shares that she recommends a dairy-free diet to clients working with skin and digestive health. Weight loss is another common reason to follow a dairy-free diet plan.

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Dairy and Acne

When it comes to the connection between dairy and noncystic acne, most of the research is on teens. A 2005 article in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology used data from the Nurses Health II study of over 47,000 women to retrospectively examine the connection. They did find “a positive association” between acne and dairy consumption.

But according to a 2010 literature review in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, “[d]airy ingestion appears to be weakly associated with acne.” Those researchers instead stressed the connection to diet, suggesting further study was needed on omega-3 fatty acids, antioxidants, zinc, vitamin A, and fiber.

So why would dairy be connected to noncystic acne? It could be the presence of bioactive molecules (including hormones) in dairy products, says Krista Maguire, R.D., C.S.S.D., and nutrition manager at Openfit.

“While the exact mechanism is still unknown, there are hypotheses, mainly around hormones found in milk,” she says. “There’s really no such thing as ‘hormone-free’ milk. Dairy has several hormones in it, including insulin-like growth factor (IGF-1) and androgens, which can contribute to sebaceous gland activity and hence acne. In addition, some speculate there’s a link between lactose and insulin spikes and acne.”

Dairy and Weight Loss

The big question most people have is “will giving up dairy help me lose weight?” There’s no doubt that triple-cream Camembert, ice cream, and whipped cream are treat foods. Other dairy foods like 2 percent cottage cheese and light ricotta are considered protein sources. So is there a connection between dairy and weight loss?

Yes, but the answer is not clear-cut. While many experts and studies say we should save high-fat dairy products for special occasions or swap them for lower-fat versions, some research suggests you can have your higher-protein, moderate-fat dairy and lose weight, too.

One 2009 study published in the British Journal of Nutrition found that subjects who ate a cheesy snack before lunch ate less at their midday meal and throughout the rest of the day. However, this was a small study of just 27 normal-weight women.

Before you reach for the string cheese, consider a 2012 meta-analysis in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. In examining 29 randomized controlled trials, researchers found that consuming dairy was linked to weight loss when subjects also cut calories or when they followed a diet for a year or less. When they had free rein over their food choices or followed a diet for over a year, the opposite effect was observed.

Dairy and Digestion

If a food doesn’t sit well with you, you’ll likely avoid it, and the same goes for dairy. Some people report occasional digestive complaints after eating dairy, including occasional bloating and gas, sometimes related to lactose intolerance.

As with any health issue, you should discuss your concerns with your doctor or a trained health-care professional.

Lactose intolerance means that an enzyme (lactase) needed to break down lactose (milk sugar) is missing. This is quite common. “In most human populations, lactase activity decreases during mid-childhood (about five years of age), resulting in low levels from that age onwards,” says Maguire. “Lactose intolerance is most common in East Asian adults — less than 10 percent of this group can break down lactose.”

Dairy-Free Diet: Everything You Need to Know

What Can You Eat Instead of Dairy?

If you’ve given up milk or are considering it, you’ll need to know what you can eat instead of dairy. In some cases, such as cheese on top of a salad or a dollop of sour cream on tacos, you can skip it. But what about milk and butter in recipes or Greek yogurt as a protein source?

“There are so many options these days, including coconut, almond, hemp, soy, rice, and quinoa alternatives,” says Minchen. There’s vegan protein powder for your daily shakes, nutritional yeast to add a rich cheesiness, and even vegan cashew queso sauce. You can also make your own homemade almond milk.

Just keep in mind that the nutrition content of non-dairy alternatives may not be the same as the dairy version. For example, almond milk yogurt doesn’t have much protein, so it’s not a good swap for Greek yogurt as a protein source.

And rice milk may not have the calcium of skim milk, so you may want to find a fortified version instead.

“For cheese and sour cream, I love guacamole or hummus as a substitute (which are creamy and rich without the milk),” says Minchen. “For milk, I love unsweetened almond milk, coconut milk, hemp milk, rice milk, or organic soy milk. And for yogurt, almond and coconut yogurts have improved in flavor — just watch the sugar!”

You may also consider cutting back on dairy. “Something else we will work toward is determining how much dairy they can tolerate,” says Minchen. Some of her clients can comfortably enjoy dairy a couple of times per week, so she occasionally includes dairy in their meals “to make the plan more sustainable and enjoyable.”

What About Calcium on a Dairy-Free Diet?

When you think of the benefits of milk, bone health likely comes to mind. What about calcium on a dairy-free diet? If you’re not drinking milk or eating dairy, how can you ensure you’re getting enough calcium? After all, calcium is an important nutrient for our hearts as well as our musculoskeletal system and our nervous system.

“This abundant mineral is highly regulated in the body, which means that if you don’t consume enough through your diet, calcium is leached from your bones to maintain constant concentrations so that these bodily functions can happen,” says Maguire. “Therefore, it’s imperative to get enough to meet your daily needs.”

While up to two-thirds of the calcium in Western diets comes from dairy products, there are plenty of other sources. Dairy-free calcium sources include beans and dark leafy greens as well as calcium-fortified foods like almond milk (check the label to see if it’s fortified) or calcium-set tofu.

“Dairy is rich in calcium, potassium, and magnesium,” says Minchen, so replacing dairy with lots of dark leafy greens, broccoli, sunflower and pumpkin seeds, and organic soybeans (all foods that are rich in the same nutrients) “can be helpful in ensuring that you aren’t missing out on vital nutrients,” she says.

The Bottom Line

You may opt to go dairy-free for a number of reasons. The benefits of a dairy-free diet may be personal or could include skin and digestive health or weight loss.

If you are dairy-free, read labels and seek out healthy alternatives. (If you want to include dairy in your “everything in moderation” diet, that’s OK, too.)