How to Start Eating Dairy-Free

By: Charlotte Fisher  |  EatingWell.com, June 2017

If you're just getting started eating dairy-free, you may not be sure what's safe to eat and what's not. There are healthy ways to eat dairy-free if you need to for an allergy, intolerance, preference or if you're eating a vegan diet. Depending on why you might be eating dairy-free, there are a few differences in what your diet might look like. For example, being lactose-intolerant is different from having a dairy allergy, and there are some low-lactose or lactose-free foods that people with lactose intolerance can eat. Someone with a true dairy allergy, or a vegan, would want to eliminate all dairy foods. Here's how to get started eating a healthy dairy-free diet.

Swaps to Make When Eating Dairy-Free

Almond-Butter Banana Protein Smoothie

If you're not sure how to eat some of your favorite foods without dairy, these simple swaps can help. And it's easier than ever to find dairy-free products in stores, including cheese, ice cream, spreads and cookies. Always check labels to make sure that a dairy ingredient isn't listed on packaged foods.

Dairy-Free Smoothies:

Reach for almond milk or soymilk over dairy milk. Instead of yogurt, add avocado or nut butter for creaminess.

Recipe to try: Almond-Butter Banana Protein Smoothie

Dairy-Free Sandwiches:

Skip the cheese and make sure your bread doesn't contain milk or milk powder. To add some flavor, reach for veggie slices, hummus or avocado slices.

Recipe to try: Avocado, Tomato & Chicken Sandwich

Dairy-Free Dips:

You may want to check to be sure any store-bought or restaurant dips don't contain yogurt or sour cream. At home, you can make guacamole or try vegan queso.

Recipe to try: Vegan Queso

Dairy-Free Ice Cream:

Many brands now make ice cream with alternative milks like almond and coconut. You can also reach for sorbet. Or make your own healthy "ice cream" at home with bananas.

Recipe to try: 2-Ingredient Peanut Butter Banana Ice Cream

Get More:

Healthy Dairy-Free Recipes

 

Nutrients to Keep in Mind When Eating Dairy-Free

2-Ingredient Peanut Butter Banana Ice Cream

Calcium

Calcium is an important mineral for your bones and teeth—and 1 cup of low-fat milk contains 293 mg of calcium. Most adults need around 1,000 mg of calcium each day, while young children and individuals over 50 years old need slightly more. If you cut out dairy, you'll likely end up with a reduced intake of this vital mineral. Fortunately, you can still get calcium from other sources, including vegetables like kale and broccoli, and the USDA recommends choosing calcium-fortified foods like cereals, breads and juices to meet your needs.

Vitamin D

Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin that is important for the absorption of calcium. Most foods don't naturally contain large amounts of vitamin D, but some are fortified with the vitamin. Dairy milk is fortified with vitamin D. If you're looking for dairy-free alternatives, fortified soymilk and almond milk can get you just as much as a glass of low-fat milk.

Protein

There are two major types of proteins found in milk—caseins and whey proteins. Men should aim for 56 grams of protein per day and women should aim for 46 grams, according to the Health and Medicine Division of the National Academies. One glass of low-fat milk supplies 8 grams of protein, and yogurt and cheese are also high in protein. Not to worry, there are plenty of nondairy protein sources too, including meat and poultry, fish, eggs, nuts and several dairy-free alternative milks—like soymilk, which can have up to 9 grams of protein per cup (check the Nutrition Facts panel).

Intolerance vs. Allergy vs. Preference

Avocado, Tomato & Chicken Sandwich

Lactose Intolerance

Lactose is the natural sugar found in milk. When you have a lactose intolerance, your body lacks or has insufficient amounts of the enzyme (lactase) needed to digest lactose. As people who have lactose intolerance know, eating foods with lactose can cause them serious gastric distress (symptoms like nausea, bloating, gas and diarrhea). The good news? There are many lactose-free alternatives out there, including cow's milk that has had the lactose removed.

Milk Allergy

Having a milk allergy means your body has an abnormal immune response to milk—an allergic reaction is triggered when you consume it. An allergy differs from an intolerance because the body is reacting to the protein in milk, not the milk sugar. Symptoms and reactions vary but can be potentially life-threatening. The only way to deal with this is to avoid dairy products altogether. This is a situation where dairy-free alternatives come in handy, like soy- or almond-based products.

Preference

There are several other reasons people avoid dairy and eat a dairy-free diet. Following a vegan diet means avoiding all animal products, including eggs and dairy. Other diet plans, such as paleo and Whole30, also eliminate dairy. Or, you just might not enjoy the taste of dairy or not want it all the time, and thus dairy-free alternatives might be the way to go.

Bottom Line

Vegan Queso

If you're going dairy-free, make sure you're still getting the nutrients your body needs, specifically vitamin D, calcium and adequate amounts of protein. To do this, read the labels and reach for products that have been fortified with these vitamins and minerals and are rich in protein.

Watch: How to Make Dairy-Free Soft Serve