Dairy gets almost as much crap as carbs these days. With people blaming it for everything from zits to brain fog to bloating, it seems like going dairy-free is the thing to do.
But should everyone really swear off cheese forever? Well, it’s complicated.
A recent surge of interest in both food allergies and how food is produced in the US (partially thanks to Netflix documentaries like the Rotten series) has made many people skeptical of dairy, says dietitian Isabel Smith, RD.
Plus, buzz about the benefits of plant-based diets also has many healthy eaters opting for plants over animal foods more often, if not going full-on vegetarian or vegan.
At the same time, the dairy-free market has exploded, with products like oat milk and coconut yogurt getting hotter by the second. “There are a lot of interest groups that want to promote the benefits of various non-dairy products,” says Smith.
So, is all that “Got Milk?” stuff a sham? If you’re curious about the dairy-free life, here’s what you need to know.
Is a dairy-free diet right for you?
People are breaking up with dairy for several reasons these days.
One of the most common: lactose intolerance. Approximately 65 percent of the adult population can’t digest lactose (the sugar found in milk and other dairy products), per the National Institutes of Health, which can lead to bloating, diarrhea, abdominal cramps, and gas.
Other people, meanwhile, have actual milk allergies, in which the immune system thinks that the proteins in milk and other dairy products are foreign invaders and attacks them, causing an allergic reaction. (Think hives, rashes, wheezing, and even anaphylaxis in some cases.) Though peanut allergies get the most attention, milk is actually one of the most common food allergies, according to the American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology (ACAAI).
Beyond having immediate issues processing dairy, many people now choose to eat dairy-free for lifestyle reasons.
Vegans, for example, choose to avoid all animal products, whether for health, environmental, or ethical reasons. Paleo eaters, meanwhile, skip dairy based on the theory that early humans didn’t consume it.
Others, still, skip dairy because of concerns about the hormones and other additives involved in conventional dairy and milk production.
Here are all the foods you’ll have to ditch on a dairy-free diet.
You probably have an idea of what foods you’ll have to kiss goodbye on a dairy-free diet, but here’s a quick refresher, just in case.
First of all, dairy includes milk and other foods made from the milk of cows, sheep, and goats. (Yep, eggs are cool.)
So if you decide to kick dairy, you’ll have to nix milk, yogurt, cheese, ice cream, butter, sour cream, and ~anything~ made with them.
No more Brie or Manchego. No more pints of Ben and Jerry’s. No more milk chocolate.
While avoiding the dairy aisle might be easy, you’ll need to look out for dairy hiding out in baked goods, soups, dips, and sauces, too. You’ll also want to double check with servers when dining out to make sure dishes aren’t prepared with cream or butter.
You’ll also want to pay extra attention to these nutrients.
Two key nutrients dairy is famous for: calcium and vitamin D. With anything milk-based off the table, you’ll have to work a little harder to get your fill.
“Calcium and vitamin D are both critical and work in tandem to support strong bones,” say The Nutrition Twins, Lyssie Lakatos, RD, and Tammy Lakatos Shames, RD. “Vitamin D helps your body absorb calcium, so if you get enough calcium but not enough vitamin D, your bones won’t be as strong as they should be.”
In addition to bone health, calcium also plays a role in muscle, hormone, and nerve function, say Lakatos and Lakatos Shames. Vitamin D also supports the immune system and regulates cell growth.
Lakatos and Lakatos Shames recommend that women aim for 1,000 milligrams of calcium and 600 IU of vitamin D daily.
You can find calcium in foods like dark leafy green veggies (like kale and spinach), canned fish (like salmon and sardines), beans, chia seeds, edamame, nuts, and tempeh. Many juices and alternative milks are also fortified with the mineral.
As for vitamin D, your best source is the sun. “If you live in the South and are outside a lot, you may get enough from the sun,” say Lakatos and Lakatos Shames. If not, combine sun exposure with D-containing foods like salmon, mackerel, and other fish, and eggs. Cereals, juices, and many dairy-alternative products are also fortified with vitamin D.
Make sure you get enough protein, too.
Another potential benefit of dairy: protein. The building block of muscle, bone, skin, and more, your body needs protein to build and repair tissues.
“Most people need between 40 to 60 grams of protein a day, at the very least,” says Smith. Luckily, you’ve got plenty of non-dairy protein sources to choose from, including meat, poultry, and fish, and plant-based foods like beans, tofu, and even peanut butter.
Supplements may help you meet your needs, dairy-free.
If you still find yourself falling short on nutrients like calcium, vitamin D, and protein, supplements can help to make up the difference.
“If you’ve been tested and are low in vitamin D, consult with a registered dietitian or your doctor to find out how much you should supplement with,” say Lakatos and Lakatos Shames. Same goes for calcium.
As for protein, consider adding a scoop of plant-based protein powder to your morning smoothies or baked recipes.
Don’t sweat it too much, though. “Eat grains, lots of vegetables, lean protein, and plenty of healthy fat—like olive oil and avocado—and your body will get what it needs,” says Smith.
These 5 dairy-free substitutions will also *literally* save your life.
If you’re wondering how to live without some of your favorite dairy foods (mostly cheese), don’t freak out. With a few smart substitutions, you can still enjoy that creamy goodness.
1. Dairy-free milk
There are countless alternative milks on the shelves these days, including soy, almond, coconut, and oat options. Can’t live without creamer in your coffee or tea? Plant-based coffee creamers have you covered.
Just look for a brand that’s fortified with vitamin D and calcium, say Lakatos and Lakatos Shames.
If you need a sub for milk while cooking or baking, use unsweetened vanilla-flavored coconut, oat, or hemp milk to avoid extra sugar, Smith notes.
Need a thickener for your soups or sauces? Instead of cream, use firm silken tofu, recommend Lakatos and Lakatos Shames. Simply blend it until completely smooth and add it to your recipe. (It’s also a good substitute for sour cream.)
3. Nutritional yeast
While it’s not quite the same as cheese, nutritional yeast can give breads, savory pastries, and other recipes cheesy flavor, say Lakatos and Lakatos Shames. Just blend one part nutritional yeast with two parts nuts or seeds and add salt to taste.
4. Coconut cream
If a recipe calls for heavy cream, use coconut cream instead. You can buy cans of just cream or refrigerate a can of full-fat coconut milk and skim off the cream that settles at the top.
5. Dairy-free yogurt
Going dairy-free doesn’t mean you have to give up on yogurt parfaits. “There are great dairy-free yogurt brands around these days,” says Smith. Many supermarkets now carry yogurt alternatives made from coconut milk, almond milk, cashews, or soy.
Ultimately, going dairy-free is a totally personal choice.
Though not everyone needs to go dairy-free, if you prefer not to eat it, ditching the stuff is easier than ever. Just be sure to get your fill of key nutrients like calcium, protein, and vitamin D by eating a healthy diet full of a variety of whole foods.
Still not sure where to start? Talk to a registered dietitian, who can help you redesign your diet and meet your nutritional needs.
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