Dairy-free Diet: Benefits and Risks - What To Eat
dairy-free diet

Dairy-free Diet: A Beginner’s Guide

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More and more people are giving up milk and dairy products nowadays, and not only those who choose to go vegan. There are also many cultures across the world who traditionally do not consume dairy, such as most nations in East Asia (contrary to most European countries, for example, who consume lots of dairy products).

So what is the dairy-free diet exactly? And why do some people decide not to eat dairy? If you’re not sensitive or intolerant to dairy, is there an advantage to not eating any, or is it more a matter of personal preference?

What are the possible issues that some people have with dairy?

Are you considering following and dairy-free diet yourself?

To give you all the info you need – and more – we have read studies, articles and many personal testimonies, and collected all the details on the dairy-free diet here.

What is the Dairy-free Diet?

In short, that’s a diet in which you do not consume any dairy products – milk, cheese, cream, yoghurt, ice-cream and anything else that contains dairy.

If you decide to follow a dairy free-diet, you should also be mindful of processed food, as it might contain dairy, even in items where you wouldn’t expect any dairy. That’s why you should always check labels.

If you’re following a dairy-free diet, any products that are made out of dairy or that contain dairy should be removed from your diet.

This includes:

  • Milk
  • Cheese
  • Yoghurt
  • Butter and ghee
  • Ice cream
  • Cream, coffee creamers, half and half
  • Powdered proteins made from dairy, such as whey or casein
  • Buttermilk
  • Kefir.

Some people are able to digest goat and sheep dairy products better than products made from cow milk, so if you want to still occasionally enjoy dairy, it’s worth experimenting with that.

Additionally, dairy products that have undergone a fermentation process are better tolerated by most people – this means that yoghurt and cheese might be easier on your stomach than plain milk.

If you want to follow a dairy-free diet only temporary and later reintroduce dairy, you should remove it from your diet for at least a couple of weeks, and reintroduce it very slowly, to see how your body reacts to different products.

For example, many people discover that they digest butter or ghee just fine, but cannot tolerate milk or cheese. Others find out that hard cheeses are ok for them, while soft cheeses are aren’t well-digested.

The reason for this is that hard cheeses contain almost no lactose, so this might give you more insight on whether you’re sensitive to dairy in general or to lactose in particular.

Who Can Benefit From a Dairy-free Diet?

The most obvious answer is, of course, people who have some sort of lactose/dairy intolerance, sensitivity or allergy.

What is the difference between having a dairy allergy, dairy intolerance or dairy sensitivity, you might wonder?

An allergic reaction to dairy would mean that your immune system reacts to the consumption of a dairy product by attacking your own body.

The reaction can be more or less severe and can include symptoms such as a skin rash, respiratory problems, swelling and difficulty breathing, among others. Allergic reactions can be very severe and even life-threatening.

Contrary to this, a lactose intolerance means having trouble digesting lactose (one of the main types of sugar naturally present in dairy), but without having your immune system react to it.

Symptoms are usually limited to your digestive system and would include some level of discomfort, such as diarrhoea, gas, bloating, or stomach cramping and discomfort.

Lactose intolerance is present in people who lack the digestive enzyme lactase, or do not produce enough of it. In fact, the older you get, the less lactase your body can produce – it is estimated that around 65% of people worldwide have a limited ability to digest lactose.

Some people can have a dairy sensitivity that is not specifically limited to lactose – they might be unable to digest the proteins present in milk, for example.

How can you find out whether you have some sort of dairy intolerance or sensitivity? The simplest method is to stop eating dairy for period of time, such as a week or two, and see how you feel.

People who do not digest dairy very well and are sensitive to it will notice an improvement of their symptoms when they stop eating it.

Such symptoms might include:

  • Bloating
  • Upset stomach
  • Irregular Bowel movements
  • Water retention.

Moreover, some people notice the dairy has a negative effect on their skin. Was they remove it from their diets, their skin becomes clearer and more radiant.

Most people who do have a lactose intolerance or a dairy sensitivity, can usually digest small amounts of dairy, but the bigger the amount, the more difficulties their bodies will have to digest it well.

For example, 2 tablespoons of milk in your coffee might not be a problem, while a glass of milk might bloat you. If you recognize yourself in this, you can either decide to limit all dairy altogether, or try to establish what your personal threshold and triggers are (which might be a slow and painful process, depending on how sensitive you are to dairy).

If you’re in any of these groups (allergic to dairy, lactose intolerant or sensitive to either lactose or dairy), you might find out that a dairy-free diet can be extremely beneficial for you and help you manage digestive and allergic symptoms, and make your life easier.

Additionally, people who are trying to lose weight might actually benefit from excluding dairy from their diet for a while – dairy products can be very caloric.

Examples include cheese, cream, all kinds of dairy products with added sugar, such as ice-creams, sweetened yoghurts, and the like, as well as caffeinated drinks that contain milk or cream, such as cappuccinos, frappés, frappuccinos and the like.

If you’re dieting, all of these might be counterproductive to you – cheese is very calorie-dense, and most caffeinated drinks containing milk are packed with sugar, as well. Ice-cream is obvious – it’s high in calories and in sugar at the same time.

If you want to follow a dairy-free diet just temporarily, for example while you’re dieting, you could remove all dairy from your diet for a period of time – a couple of weeks, months, or simply until you reach your goal weight. After that you might want to reintroduce dairy back into your diet slowly, and see how your body reacts to it.

What Are the Benefits of a Dairy-free Diet?

For people who are sensitive to dairy or to lactose, the benefits can be plenty, such as:

  • clearer skin
  • less bloating and stomach discomfort
  • less water retention
  • more regular bowel movements.

For people who are allergic to dairy, removing it completely from their diet is essential for maintaining a good health and not suffering from allergic reactions.

For people who are dieting, removing dairy from their diet might help them break a weight loss stall and continue losing weight.

Dairy is controversial for another reason – some studies point out that it might affect your hormones negatively, as it contains steroid hormones, which are very potent even in small doses.

More studies are needed in order to determine the scope of the potential side effects in humans, but some people prefer avoiding dairy for that reason.

Are There Any Risks Associated With a Dairy-free Diet?

If you have a diet that is mostly based on whole, natural foods that are rich in nutrients, it’s unlikely that you’ll suffer from any deficiencies if you limit dairy or remove it completely.

If you’re concerned about calcium, there are some other foods that contain a good amount of it:

  • sardines (with bones), canned salmon (with bones)
  • spinach
  • kale
  • seaweed
  • collard greens
  • bok choi
  • Swiss chard
  • broccoli.

Additionally, if you’re eating chicken, you can just chew off tiny bits of bone (from the drumstick, for example) for a calcium boost – 3 grams of bones contain approximately 1000 mg.

Regarding protein, dairy is indeed a good source of it, but so are plenty of other products, and most importantly, meat, fish and eggs.

Even if you’re following a vegan diet, you can still get plenty of protein from plants, soy products, or plant-based protein powders – the main consideration would be to combine different types of proteins, in order to make sure that the protein you’re consuming is complete.

What Are the Alternatives to Dairy?

If you’re missing milk, there are plenty of non-dairy milks on the market right now, so you’ll have lots of choice. Some of them are:

  • almond milk
  • coconut milk
  • soy milk (some people might be sensitive to soy, though)
  • hemp milk
  • rice milk
  • and more.

As for cheese, there are some vegan cheeses, which usually contain soy proteins, and there’s also tofu, which is made of fermented soybeans.

Yogurt can be substituted with plant-based yogurts, such as soy yogurt and coconut yogurt.

What diets are dairy-free? How does the dairy-free diet compare to keto?

Some diets, such as the vegan diet or the paleo diet, are dairy-free.

The paleo diet is dairy-free, because it is assumed that our ancestors weren’t eating dairy, or at least not on a regular basis. The dairy-free diet is a rather generic term, describing any style of eating, in which no dairy products are consumed.

Given that the vegan diet is plants only, any products with an animal origin are completely excluded, so any vegan diet would be dairy-free as well. Some vegans opt for nut milks and tofu, while others prefer to not rely on alternatives to milk.

Additionally some people (vegans and non-vegans alike) are sensitive to soy, so tofu might also not make a part of their diets.

How you handle your dairy-free diet all depends on your specific preferences and whether there are any products that you miss (such as milk) and that you’d like to have, or whether you’re fine with the other foods and beverages, without needing to substitute anything.

Dairy-free on a Keto Diet

The standard keto diet is typically not dairy-free, and some people who do keto heavily rely on dairy, and especially on cheese and cream.

Nevertheless, if you’re doing a very low-carb type of diet, you need to be very selective about the dairy you’re consuming, as some of it can be quite high in carbs – milk, for example, is far from ideal, with its 5 g net carbs per 100 ml. The same goes for sweetened yogurts, or some types of cheese.

Some people who do keto for weight loss might decide to temporarily limit dairy (and sometimes other high-calorie foods too, such as nuts), as most cheese and cream can be very energy-dense, and might be counterproductive, especially if not measured properly. In most cases, this is done when you hit a weight loss stall, but if your goal is weight loss, you need to be very mindful of highly caloric foods and track them correctly.

Our Conclusion

The dairy-free diet can mean plenty of things for different people – its only prerequisite is limiting dairy, but apart from that, it’s not really strict, so it would depend on you and your personal preferences whether you’d like to follow a more structured type of diet, such as keto or paleo, and combine it with not consuming any dairy, or whether you’d just like to limit dairy but continue eating everything else.

People might follow dairy-free diets for different reasons, and how strict you want to be depends on your reasons why you’d want to follow it. Some people decide to limit dairy only temporary, as a means to achieve better results in terms of weight loss, others, who are sensitive, intolerant or allergic to dairy or lactose, feel better removing dairy altogether, as a permanent solution.

Additionally, some might prefer to limit dairy to small amounts every now and then (f.e. 20-30 grams of cheese per day or so), without excluding it completely. There are plenty of different options that you can choose from.

Are you personally eating dairy? Why, or why not? Have you followed a dairy-free diet in the past? What is your experience with it? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below!

Up Next: The Guide to Dairy Products on a Keto Diet

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