Here's how to make sure you avoid dairy completely (including milk-derived additives)—and still get the nutrients your body needs.
I’ve had clients go dairy free for a variety of reasons. Some tested positive for a dairy allergy, or had struggled with symptoms of lactose intolerance. Others experienced signs of a dairy sensitivity, like bloating, fatigue, and frequent sinus infections. Still others wanted to test whether eliminating dairy would improve inflammatory skin conditions such as acne, or eczema. Each is a valid reason for giving milk and butter the old heave-ho.
If you’ve also decided to cut out dairy, there are some things you should know about how to do it right. 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. 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. And yup, skim milk powder is an ingredient in much-loved Nutella. To completely avoid dairy, reading every ingredient on a label is key. Some less obvious terms that indicate dairy include: casein hydrolysate; caseinate; and lactate solids. For a longer list visit www.foodallergy.org. (By the way if you’re looking for a dairy-free Nutella replacement, try Justin’s Chocolate Hazelnut Butter. And no, cocoa butter is not dairy. It’s derived from cocoa beans.)
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 of the alternative sources. For example, two ounces of sardines canned in water contain 15% of the recommended calcium intake. A cup of cooked collard greens pack 36% of a day’s calcium needs. Two tablespoons of sesame seeds provide 17%; a half cup of canned white beans, 8%; and an ounce of almonds, 8%. Plant-based “milks” like almond milk are typically fortified with calcium, and can provide up to 45% of the Daily Value for calcium per cup. A combination of whole foods and products with calcium added 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 an ounce of cheese, around 6 grams. Again, if dairy has been a primary protein source, it’s important to seek out options to fill in the dairy gap. Some of the foods that supply calcium also provide protein—like sardines, beans, and almonds. But dairy-free versions of Greek yogurt can also give you a protein boost. For example, Ripple brand’s original flavor of dairy-free Greek, made with pea protein, provides 12 grams per serving. Daiya’s plain Greek yogurt provides 6 grams of protein.
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Experiment with dairy-free alternatives
In addition to dairy-free milk and yogurt, you can find non-dairy options in nearly every section of the supermarket these days, from ice creams made with nut or coconut milks, 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 stay on a dairy-free track. That can be key for ensuring that 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, healthful fats, and nutrient-rich whole grains and starchy veggies. 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, something is off.
For example, I’ve seen people remove 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 off, your body will likely cue you, so tune in and take note!
Cynthia Sass, MPH, RD, is Health’s contributing nutrition editor, a New York Times best-selling author, and a consultant for the New York Yankees and Brooklyn Nets.