What Is a Dairy-Free Diet?

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Milk alternatives for milk allergy
Consider the pros and cons of milk alternatives. Jamie Grill/Getty Images

Milk often fills an important nutritional niche, because it's rich in calcium, protein, and other nutrients. But many people don't drink milk because of milk allergy, food sensitivities, or personal preference. If you follow a dairy-free diet, it's important to know how to make sure your diet is healthy without milk and other dairy products, such as yogurt and cheese. Fortunately, though, all the beneficial components of milk are found in a variety of other common foods.

What Experts Say

"Dairy can be a valuable food choice, providing nutrients like calcium, vitamin D, and protein. If you have a dairy allergy or intolerance, though, a dairy-free diet is certainly warranted. Experts recommend including other sources of calcium and vitamin D if you use this diet."
Chrissy Carroll, RD, MPH

Background

Cow's milk is the most common allergy among young children, affecting 2 to 3 percent of kids under 3. It tops the list of the eight most common allergens. Many, but not all, children will eventually outgrow this allergy. People with a milk allergy are allergic to the protein in milk.

Lactose intolerance is far more common, affecting as many as 65 percent of people. These people have difficulty digesting lactose, the sugar in milk, and experience symptoms such as abdominal pain, bloating, nausea, and diarrhea if they consume lactose.

Aside from these two groups, there are many people who simply prefer to avoid dairy products in their diet. This could be due to cultural preferences, taste aversion, or a sense that they feel more healthy without dairy.

How It Works

For those with a milk allergy, it's important to avoid all cow's milk and products that could contain milk or milk proteins. Often, other animal milks (such as goat's milk) should also be avoided, as they may not be safe for people with a cow's milk allergy.

If you are lactose intolerant, consuming dairy products can cause painful symptoms, but generally not dangerous allergic reactions. People with this condition can't tolerate a wide range of lactose (which is a sugar found in milk). Some may be able to consume foods that contain small amounts of lactose, such as butter, aged cheeses, and yogurt with live cultures.

What to Eat

Compliant Foods

  • Milk substitutes

  • Dairy-free foods rich in calcium, protein, and vitamin D

  • Products labeled "dairy-free" (with caution)

  • Products labeled "non-dairy" (with caution)

Non-Compliant Foods

  • Milk

  • Foods made from milk

  • Foods that contain milk

  • Foods that come into contact with milk

Milk Substitutes

You'll find many options for milk substitutes (such as soy, almond, rice, and oat milk) to replace animal milks for drinking, pouring on cereal, and so on. They vary greatly in terms of flavor, the nutrients they contain, and whether they have added sugars, so read labels carefully. You may need to experiment to find the type and brand of milk substitute you like best. Note that lactose-free milk still contains milk proteins, so it not safe for people with milk allergies.

Foods That Replace the Nutrients in Milk

Dairy products are an important source of certain nutrients. So a dairy-free diet needs to incorporate other sources of these nutrients:

  • Protein: Adults and teens require 50 to 60 grams of protein daily. Children's needs range from nine to 34 grams, depending on age. But you don't need dairy products to give you enough protein. Even people who eat meat infrequently are likely to far exceed their minimum protein needs. Six ounces of lean ground beef includes over 45 grams of protein. Great vegetarian sources of protein include: tofu, legumes, eggs, and whole grains.
  • Calcium: Calcium is a vital mineral for building bone mass, and milk is a rich source of this mineral. Adult women have the highest calcium needs, at 1000 to 1500 mg per day, while children require between 500 and 1300 mg, depending on their ages. To get your calcium without dairy products, you can eat foods that have been supplemented with calcium, such as orange juice, cranberry juice, breakfast cereals, and soy milk. Some almond milk brands also have added calcium. Nondairy foods that are especially high in calcium include kale, collard greens, tofu, shellfish, salmon, legumes, and amaranth. You can also take calcium supplements, if your doctor recommends them.
  • Vitamin D: Milk also includes vitamin D, which is used in the body to help absorb dietary calcium. Therefore, when you omit milk and dairy from your diet, you also need to be mindful of your vitamin D intake. Vitamin D deficiency can cause serious disorders of the bones like rickets and osteomalacia. These are very rare disorders, however, since vitamin D can be produced naturally by the body when you expose your skin to the sun. Ten to 15 minutes per day of direct sunlight in most locations is sufficient to prevent vitamin D deficiency, especially in the summer. Good nondairy dietary sources of vitamin D include eggs, fish, oysters, fortified cereals, and cod liver oil.
  • Riboflavin: Riboflavin, or vitamin B2, is one of the B-complex of vitamins vital for processing carbohydrates in the body. It has become popular as a treatment for migraine headaches, as it has been clinically shown to reduce their frequency. The RDI (recommended daily intake) for riboflavin is 1.3 mg for adult men and 1.1 mg for adult women (children and adolescents need less). Leafy greens, sweet potatoes, whole grains, and meat are good sources. Some cereals and breads are enriched with riboflavin as well.
  • Phosphorus: This mineral helps regulate cell function in the body. It is a major component of bones and teeth. Meat eaters should easily get adequate phosphorus in the diet without dairy. Fatty fish, in particular, are an efficient way to meet your phosphorus needs. Vegetarians' best options for phosphorus are legumes, which are high in phosphorus but not absorbed as easily in the body as the phosphorus found in animal products. Another good source is bread, especially if it has been leavened with yeast.

Dairy-Free Products (With Caution)

Even if a food is labeled "dairy-free," you should still read the ingredients list carefully. There are no Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulations governing the use of the term, so it's possible that "dairy-free" products could still contain milk derivatives, such as casein or whey. That would make them unsafe for people who are allergic to milk.

Non-Dairy Products (With Caution)

Products labeled "non-dairy" are actually allowed, by FDA rules, to contain milk proteins, according to the Food Allergy Research and Resource Program at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. So as with "dairy-free" products, it's important to inspect the ingredient list. Many non-dairy products may actually be unsafe for people with milk allergies (although they could be suitable for people who are lactose intolerant).

Milk

Of course, cow's milk will be at the top of your list of foods to avoid if you are on a dairy-free diet. As noted above, other animal milks are also usually best avoided.

Foods Made With Milk

These include cheese, yogurt, and ice cream. Sometimes dairy-free versions are available (such as yogurt made from soy milk), but always check the label to make sure they are safe.

Foods That Contain Milk

Depending on how strict your dairy-free diet is (that is, if you have an allergy vs. an intolerance or preference), you may not be able to eat foods prepared with milk, such as baked goods. Milk proteins may also show up in surprising places, such as in deli meat and hot dogs.

Foods That Come Into Contact With Milk

In the case of a milk allergy, you need to avoid cross-contamination. Check labels to make sure that dairy-free foods have never come into contact with milk proteins in the manufacturing or preparation processes.

Resources and Tips

The Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act requires that food products containing the eight major allergens have plain-language labels ("contains milk") to help consumers avoid these allergens. However, this labeling requirement does not include restaurant foods, so you will need to ask questions before ordering.

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • Necessary for those with allergies

  • May ease discomfort in those with intolerances and sensitivities

  • Safe and no associated health risks

  • Substitute foods are generally available

Cons

  • Requires planning to meet nutritional needs

  • Some alternate foods may be costly

  • Strictly avoiding dairy can be difficult

Pros

Necessity

In the case of milk allergy, a dairy-free diet is essential to avoid exposure and possibly dangerous allergic reactions.

Helpfulness

For those who have lactose intolerance or other sensitivity to dairy products, avoiding them can help ease uncomfortable and painful symptoms.

Safety

A dairy-free diet is safe, as long as people who follow it make sure to get enough calcium and other nutrients typically found in dairy products.

Accessibility

Milk substitutes and other dairy-free products are readily available in most supermarkets.

Regardless of these benefits, a dairy-free diet is not necessarily for everyone. If you think you are sensitive to or intolerant of dairy products, discuss your diet with a medical professional to rule out underlying medical conditions. Your doctor may recommend a calcium supplement, as well.

Cons

Practicality

Following a dairy-free diet requires planning to make sure that you have access to foods that are safe for you (for example, when eating at a restaurant or friend's home). It also requires planning to ensure that your nutritional needs are met with nondairy sources of protein, calcium, vitamin D, and so on.

Cost

Some milk substitutes and other dairy-free items are more expensive than their dairy counterparts.

Sustainability

It is reasonably easy and straightforward to avoid milk and milk products, but eliminating dairy from your diet entirely can be challenging. Dairy can hide in everything from candy bars to sausage to shellfish, medicine, and chewing gum.

How It Compares

The dairy-free diet shares some similarities with other diets that eliminate dairy products or other foods, in some cases due to a medical condition.

USDA Recommendations

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

Similar Diets

Compare the dairy-free diet to others that also limit or reduce dairy, or (as in the gluten-free diet) cut out a group of foods that the body can't tolerate.

Dairy-Free Diet

  • How it works: Those on a dairy-free diet avoid all or most foods containing milk, milk proteins (casein and whey) and/or milk sugar (lactose).
  • General nutrition: This diet is generally safe and provides sufficient nutrition, as long as those following it make sure to adequately replace the nutrients found in dairy products with other sources.
  • Flexibility: Those who avoid dairy due to sensitivity or intolerance may be able to consume small amounts of dairy products. Levels of insensitivity and intolerance can vary greatly. Those with a milk allergy must carefully avoid all dairy products.
  • Sustainability: As long as nutritional needs are met, this diet can be followed indefinitely (although children do outgrow their milk allergy).

Vegan Diet

  • How it works: People who follow a vegan diet avoid all animal products, including meat, poultry, eggs, fish, and dairy.
  • General nutrition: Because it eliminates so many types of foods, a vegan diet carries some risk. Vegans will need to be careful about replacing certain nutrients that are mostly or only found in animal products.
  • Flexibility: Following a vegan diet is a choice. The level of rigor applied is up to the person who has decided to eat according to these principles.
  • Sustainability: Since this is a challenging diet to follow, it may not be a long-term option for everyone.

Gluten-Free Diet

  • How it works: On a gluten-free diet, you avoid gluten, which is a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye (and by extension, everything made with these grains).
  • General nutrition: Foods containing gluten can be replaced with gluten-free options so that all nutritional needs are met.
  • Flexibility: As with dairy products, there can be varying levels of tolerance to gluten. People with celiac disease will need to avoid it completely, while others may be able to consume small amounts.
  • Sustainability: As with a dairy-free diet, this diet can be challenging to manage, since gluten is found in so many foods and cross-contamination is common. But it is safe to follow indefinitely as long as your nutritional needs are met.

Mediterranean Diet

  • How it works: The Mediterranean diet focuses on whole grains, seafood, fruits and vegetables, legumes and nuts. Meat is allowed, but is consumed sparingly, as is milk (cheese and yogurt are more common).
  • General nutrition: This diet includes lots of nutrients, antioxidants, and fiber.
  • Flexibility: Since a wide range of foods are included, this diet could work for many people.
  • Sustainability: This diet is very safe to follow for the long term (barring any food allergies or other medical conditions) and may even promote heart health.

A Word from Verywell

It may seem complicated to keep track of all these nutrients you need when you don't consume milk products, but you get enough of most of them without too much effort. If you or your child avoids milk due to an allergy or intolerance and you're concerned about nutrition, talk to your doctor about getting a referral to a dietitian who's knowledgeable about allergy and diet issues. That person can help you craft your diet so that you're not missing out on anything important.

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