How to Start a Dairy-Free Diet

Dairy can play an important nutritional role in your diet because it's rich in nutrients like calcium, protein, and vitamins. But it's not the only source of those nutrients. Many people choose to follow a dairy-free diet because of an allergy or intolerance, personal preference, or ethical reasons.

While it may sound challenging to eliminate all dairy from your diet, with the right nutritional substitutions, going dairy-free can be a healthy, stress-free option.

This article discusses the health benefits of a dairy-free diet and provides tips on nutritional considerations to get started.

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What Is a Dairy-Free Diet?

Simply put, a dairy-free diet excludes all (or most) dairy products. This includes milk from any animal in addition to foods and drinks that contain milk, such as cheese, yogurt, butter, and cream.

Are Vegan and Dairy-Free the Same Thing?

You might be wondering, is a vegan diet a dairy-free diet? Though they do have similarities, they're not quite the same.

  • A vegan diet eliminates any product that's made from an animal. This includes dairy, meat, eggs, and fish.
  • A dairy-free diet excludes all or most dairy products. This includes milk and any foods made with milk.

One way to think of it is that while all vegan food is dairy-free, not all dairy-free food is vegan.

Benefits and Risks

As with any diet, there are benefits and potential risks to going dairy-free. This is because deleting a food group subsequently removes calories and nutrients from your diet.

The benefits and risks of a dairy-free diet can vary depending on the person, their understanding of a balanced diet, their current dietary patterns, and their individual needs.

Benefits and Advantages

One benefit to a dairy-free diet is that it is considered generally safe to follow indefinitely as long as nutritional needs are met.

In addition, a dairy-free diet is beneficial for those who have:

Relief from uncomfortable symptoms like bloating, gas, abdominal pain, and diarrhea can resolve within a few days after you stop eating dairy products.

Risks and Disadvantages

One concern with going dairy-free is making sure you get enough of the nutrients your body needs to function properly. Dairy can be a major source of calcium and vitamin D, and deficiencies in those nutrients can potentially lead to bone density issues.

Another disadvantage worth mentioning is that many milk substitutes and other dairy-free items are significantly more expensive than their dairy counterparts and are not found in all grocery stores across the country. The cost and availability factors make going without dairy less accessible to people living in historically marginalized communities, contributing to barriers to heathy eating and health equity.

Lastly, making a major change to your diet like strictly avoiding dairy can be challenging and will require some planning ahead on grocery shopping and cooking.

Pros and Cons Recap

Advantages to going dairy-free:

  • Generally safe and can be followed as long as nutritional needs are met
  • Helps ease discomfort of lactose intolerance or dairy allergy
  • May potentially help contribute to weight loss

Drawbacks to going dairy-free:

  • Not getting enough nutrients
  • Alternate foods may be costly or inaccessible
  • Strictly avoiding dairy can be difficult, and requires planning to meet nutritional needs

Foods to Eat vs. Foods to Avoid

Figuring out what you should and should not eat on a dairy-free diet is a first step to getting started.

In general, you'll want to look for and eat:

  • Milk substitutes
  • Dairy-free foods rich in calcium, protein, and vitamin D
  • Products labeled "dairy-free" and "nondairy" (with caution)

In general, you'll want to avoid:

  • Cow's milk and other animal milks
  • Foods made from milk (such as cheese, yogurt, and ice cream)
  • Foods that contain or are prepared with milk (such as baked goods and salad dressings)
  • Foods that may come into contact with milk (such as some deli meats and dark chocolate)

How to Read Food Labels

By law, food products containing any of the nine major food allergens are required to have plain-language labels (such as "contains dairy") to help people avoid them. Milk is one of those allergens, but it's still a good idea to read the label and ingredients list carefully.

  • Products labeled "dairy-free": The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) doesn't regulate this term, so these products could still contain casein milk derivatives like casein (a milk protein) or whey.
  • Products labeled "nondairy": FDA regulations technically allow these products to contain a very small percentage of milk by weight in the form of casein.

Restaurant Eating

Note that these labeling requirements do not apply to restaurant foods. If in doubt, be sure to ask your server if a particular dish is dairy-free.

Dairy-Free Nutrition

While the Department of Agriculture (USDA) recommends low-fat dairy products as part of a balanced diet, it acknowledges that there are other ways to meet your nutritional needs if you can't or prefer not to consume dairy.

The nutrients found in dairy foods—like calcium and vitamin D—help support bone health and immune function, so you'll want to make sure you get enough of those nutrients from another source.

Further, if you cut dairy from your diet for health or potential weight loss reasons, you'll want to make sure you're still consuming enough calories each day to keep your body functioning properly.

Meal Planning When Dairy-Free

Following a dairy-free diet usually requires some planning, but the guidelines are simpler than you might think.

To help build a healthy meal plan, first focus on getting in three to five servings of fruit and vegetables in per day. From there, you have several options for dairy-free alternatives:

  • Milk substitutes: Alternatives like soy, almond, coconut, and oat milk can replace cow's milk. Just be aware that their nutritional content can vary greatly.
  • Protein: While dairy is a good source of protein, you can often get your fill of it from lean meats. If you are avoiding animal products, you can also get protein from plant-based options and other products like beans, lentils, legumes, nuts, seeds, soy milk, and eggs.
  • Calcium: Consider foods that have been fortified with calcium, such as orange juice and cereals, or foods naturally high in calcium, such as kale, tofu, chia seeds, and almond butter.
  • Vitamin D: In addition to (safe) sunlight exposure, solid nondairy dietary sources of vitamin D include eggs, fatty fish, and fortified cereals.
  • Riboflavin (vitamin B2): Leafy greens, sweet potatoes, whole grains, and meat can be good sources for this essential vitamin.
  • Phosphorus: This nutrient can be found in meat, fatty fish, legumes, or bread.

Summary

A dairy-free diet excludes animal milks and any products that contain them. Some people choose to go dairy-free because they have an allergy or intolerance, while others have a personal or ethical preference. Because dairy is a source of necessary nutrients like calcium, vitamin D, and protein, experts recommend making sure to incorporate other sources of those nutrients into your daily meals.

A Word From Verywell

If you're considering going dairy-free, check with a healthcare provider first, particularly if you have an underlying health condition. They'll be able to discuss the risks and benefits of a dairy-free diet based on your individual situation, or refer you to a nutritionist or dietitian. Remember that there's no one-size-fits-all approach to any of the various diet options and feel encouraged to follow what works best for you and your overall health.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Are there withdrawal symptoms when giving up dairy?

    Cutting any food group out of your diet may require an adjustment period for your body. While there's no scientific data supporting this theory, some experts agree with anecdotal reports that there are temporary dairy withdrawal symptoms. Check with a healthcare provider if you have questions about what to expect when going dairy-free.

  • How long does it take for dairy to leave your system?

    This can vary by person. Our bodies can take anywhere from 24 to 72 hours to fully digest and eliminate foods.

  • What is the difference between lactose-free and dairy-free?

    A dairy-free product does not contain milk. A lactose-free product may still contain milk, but it's been modified to remove the lactose (a natural sugar found in milk).

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