5 Tips for Cutting Out Dairy, According to a Nutritionist

Here's how to cut out dairy completely (including milk-derived additives)—and still get the nutrients your body needs.

People choose to go dairy-free for a variety of reasons. Some have tested positive for a dairy allergy or struggled with symptoms of lactose intolerance. Others experience signs of dairy sensitivity, like bloating, fatigue, and frequent sinus infections. Still, others want to test whether eliminating dairy would improve inflammatory skin conditions like acne or eczema. Each is a valid reason for avoiding dairy.

If you've also decided to cut out dairy, there are some things you should know about how to do it in a healthy way. Here are a few mistakes to avoid and tips to help you meet all your nutrient needs.

Be Aware of Hidden Dairy Sources

Cheese and yogurt are obvious dairy sources, but dairy also lurks in many foods as an additive or ingredient. For example, whey or casein protein is often added to energy bars. Milk-derived ingredients can also be found in powdered guacamole mix, flavored potato chips, crackers, salad dressing, soup, cereal, cookies, and frozen dinners. Did you know skim milk powder is an ingredient in much-loved Nutella? And if you thought cocoa butter is a dairy food, it's not — it comes from cocoa beans. To avoid dairy, reading every ingredient on a food label is key. Some less obvious terms that indicate dairy include casein hydrolysate, caseinate, and lactate solids. A longer list of dairy ingredients is provided by the Food Allergy Research and Education Organization.

Eat Dairy-free Foods Rich in Calcium

If you've been relying on dairy as your primary source of calcium, it's time to get to know all the alternative sources and the percent Daily Value (%DV) of calcium they provide. The Daily Value is a reference amount that shows what percentage of the total daily amount of a nutrient is in one serving of that food item.

These are examples of dairy-free foods and the amount of calcium they contain:

  • Two ounces of sardines canned in water: 15%DV
  • One cup of cooked collard greens: 36%DV
  • Two tablespoons of sesame seeds: 17%DV
  • One-half cup of canned white beans: 8%DV
  • One-quarter cup of almonds: 8%DV

Some plant-based "milks"—like almond milk or soy milk—are typically fortified with calcium and can provide up to 45% of the Daily Value of calcium per cup. Be sure to check the Nutrition Facts label carefully because not all plant-based milk types contain calcium. Combining whole foods and products with calcium can easily add up to 100% of your daily needs, but you have to be deliberate about your meal and snack choices.

Make Up for Missing Protein

One cup of cow's milk provides about 8 grams of protein, and one ounce of cheese provides 6 grams. If dairy has been a primary protein source, it's important to seek out options to fill in the dairy gap. Some foods that supply calcium also provide protein—like sardines, beans, and almonds. But some dairy-free Greek yogurt versions can also boost your protein. Brands made with pea protein can provide as much as 10-11 grams of protein per serving. Again, check the Nutrition Facts label of different brands to know how much protein they provide.

Experiment With Dairy-free Alternatives

In addition to dairy-free milk and yogurt, there are non-dairy options in nearly every section of the supermarket, from ice creams made with a nut or coconut milk to cheesy dips made from cashews and ricotta made from almonds. While they may not all be stellar health foods, these products can help you avoid dairy, which can be key for ensuring problematic symptoms don't return if you suffer from a dairy allergy or sensitivity. That said, it's important to make whole foods your foundation, including plenty of vegetables, lean proteins, healthy fats, and nutrient-rich whole grains. Think of dairy-free ice cream and nacho cheese as treats.

Listen to Your Body

Whenever you make a dietary change, it's important to pay attention to your body's response. Ideally, you should feel better—more energetic, free from problematic symptoms, and in balance. If you do not feel better, or you feel worse, talk with a healthcare provider.

For example, I've seen people cut out dairy, not make up for the missing protein, and begin to feel hungrier and more run down. On the flip side, I've seen people replace dairy with more dark leafy greens, beans, nuts, and fish and feel amazing while also eliminating symptoms like skin irritation and digestive discomfort. If something is out of balance, your body will give you signs, so tune in and take note!

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