Dairy Elimination Diet: How to Start Cutting Out Dairy

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Dairy is a food group that many people consume in their diet. Dairy offers several nutrients like calcium and protein that can benefit your bone health. However, some people remove dairy from their diets for ethical or medical reasons, such as a milk allergy or lactose intolerance.

If you decide to cut out dairy, replacing those nutrients with other foods that work best for your body’s needs is important.

How to Cut Out Dairy 

Dairy products are made from the milk of cattle animals such as cows, goats, and buffaloes. Dairy foods may include:

  • Milk 
  • Yogurt
  • Cheese
  • Cream
  • Sour cream
  • Ice cream
  • Butter

Despite how close they are to dairy products at the grocery store, eggs are not dairy. 

Dairy foods are a good source of several types of nutrients such as:

  • Calcium
  • Protein
  • Potassium
  • Choline
  • Magnesium
  • Zinc
  • Selenium
  • Vitamins A, B2, B12, and D

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends three servings of dairy or dairy alternatives per day in order to take in these necessary nutrients. If you decide to cut dairy from your diet, there are non-dairy alternatives available to ensure you are still receiving these nutrients. 

If you suspect dairy may be affecting your health, start by keeping a daily food log. If you think that certain foods are causing your symptoms, try to remove them from your diet for a few days and see if you feel better. If you do experience relief after avoiding these foods, you may consider cutting them out entirely.  

If your goal is to remove all dairy from your diet, pay close attention to labels and ingredients when you buy your food. Many surprising foods like chocolate, baked goods, and salad dressings may also contain dairy products. 

What to Eat When Eliminating Dairy

Many foods naturally provide the same nutrients found in dairy. Other foods are fortified—or have nutrients added to them—to help you meet your nutritional needs.

If you are eliminating dairy from your diet, you may lose out on key nutrients such as calcium, vitamin D, and protein. Here are some alternative foods you can eat to receive these nutrients.  

Calcium-Rich Foods  

You can meet your daily calcium needs by eating these foods:

  • Plant-based milk alternatives (e.g., almond or soy milk fortified with calcium)
  • Orange juiced fortified with calcium
  • Green leafy vegetables (e.g., cooked spinach, cooked collard greens, cooked bok choy)
  • Canned fish (e.g., salmon or sardines with bones)
  • Tofu or soybean fortified with calcium

Vitamin D Foods  

You can meet your daily vitamin D needs by eating these foods:

  • Fatty fish (e.g., salmon or tuna)
  • Egg yolks 
  • Orange juice fortified with vitamin D
  • Beef liver 
  • Fortified breakfast cereals 

Protein Foods  

You can meet your daily protein needs by eating these foods:

  • Lean meats, poultry, and fish
  • Eggs
  • Seafood 
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Legumes (e.g., beans, peas, or lentils)
  • Soy or soybean products, such as tofu or tempeh  

Benefits of Cutting Out Dairy

There are some benefits of eliminating dairy from your diet. Here are some changes to your health you may start to notice. 

Managing Allergies and Intolerances

Cutting dairy can be especially beneficial if you have a milk allergy or are lactose intolerant. 

A milk allergy, one of the most common types of allergies in children and adults, prevents your immune system from properly functioning. If you have a milk allergy and consume dairy, you may experience symptoms such as:

  • Stomach pains and gas
  • Hives
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Anaphylaxis, a severe and life-threatening reaction that suddenly impairs breathing and reduces blood pressure

Removing dairy from your diet is often the only treatment available to reduce these symptoms. 

If you are not allergic to milk, but experience symptoms such as bloating, gas, or diarrhea after eating dairy, you may be lactose intolerant. Lactose is a type of sugar that is most often found in dairy products. Lactose intolerance happens when your body does not produce enough lactase, which is the enzyme your stomach uses to break down and digest lactose.

While you don’t have to completely eliminate dairy if you are lactose intolerant, you may want to avoid foods high in lactose to manage symptoms better. Some low-lactose dairy foods you can still incorporate into your diet are hard cheeses (e.g., cheddar and swiss) and probiotic yogurt.

Improving Digestive Tract Issues

Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis are two types of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) that can cause inflammation in your intestines and digestive tract. Symptoms of IBD can include stomach pain, diarrhea, rectal bleeding, and fatigue. 

People with Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis may also have trouble digesting lactose and could become lactose intolerant. Eating lactose-free foods can help prevent flare-ups and reduce symptoms. However, there is no one-size-fits-all diet for these conditions. Speak to your healthcare provider to identify which foods trigger your symptoms and which dairy products are still OK for you to eat.

Breastfeeding Benefits

Cow's milk protein intolerance (CMPI) occurs when the immune system has a reaction to the protein that is found in cow’s milk. This condition commonly affects infants and can damage a baby's developing digestive system. Your baby may have colic-like symptoms or diarrhea if they have CMPI. 

Breastfeeding may reduce the risk of an infant developing CMPI. If you breastfeed your baby, your healthcare provider may suggest you eliminate dairy from your diet to avoid passing on the milk protein to your baby.  If you think your baby has CMPI, talk to your pediatrician before going dairy-free. They may also give you other suggestions on what to feed your baby.

Skin Health

Research shows that eating dairy foods may worsen acne. One study found that high school teenagers who drank cow’s milk were 44% more likely to get acne.

While researchers are unsure of the exact cause between cow’s milk and acne, one theory suggests that cow’s milk can cause inflammation in the body, which can clog your pores and lead to acne breakouts. There are no studies that have shown that products made from milk (e.g., yogurt or cheese) can cause acne.

If you reduce your dairy consumption, you may see an improvement in your acne. 

Improving Bloating

If you are lactose intolerant, eating foods that are high in lactose can cause bloating, gas, and abdominal pain. Reducing your dairy intake can help you reduce your symptoms and feel less bloated.

To improve your digestion and overall gut health, try to stay hydrated with water and eat high-fiber foods such as beans, vegetables, fruits, and whole grains.

A Quick Review

If you have a milk allergy, are lactose intolerant, or prefer non-dairy alternatives, you may be thinking about removing dairy from your diet. Cutting dairy out of your diet can have several health benefits, such as improving digestion and reducing stomach pain and bloating. However, dairy products contain several nutrients that are beneficial for your health. If you decide to avoid dairy foods, try to incorporate alternative calcium and protein-rich foods into your diet to meet your daily nutritional needs. 

If you think you may have a dairy allergy or experience symptoms after eating dairy foods, speak to your healthcare provider about dietary changes and treatment options. 

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