What Is a Dairy-Free Diet?

Dairy free diet

Verywell / Debbie Burkhoff

At Verywell, we believe there is no one-size-fits-all approach to a healthy lifestyle. Successful eating plans need to be individualized and take the whole person into consideration. Prior to starting a new diet plan, consult with your healthcare provider or a registered dietitian, especially if you have an underlying health condition.

Milk often fills an important nutritional niche because it's rich in calcium, protein, and other nutrients. But many people avoid milk because of an allergy, food sensitivities, or personal preference. Those following a dairy-free diet may miss out on some of these important nutrients, but with the right substitutions, a dairy-free diet can still be a healthy choice.

Lactose intolerance is far more common than dairy allergy, affecting as many as 65% of people. Cow's milk is the most common allergy among young children, affecting 2–3% of kids under 3 and 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.

These people have difficulty digesting lactose, the sugar in milk, and experience symptoms such as abdominal pain, bloating, nausea, and diarrhea if they consume it. 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 it.

If you follow a dairy-free diet, it's important to know how to keep your diet healthy and balanced 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

What Can You Eat?

Those on a dairy-free diet avoid all or most foods containing milk, milk proteins (casein and whey), and/or milk sugar (lactose). 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 You Need to Know

The Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act of 2004 (FALCPA) 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 your server the necessary questions before ordering.

What to Eat
  • Milk substitutes

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

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

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

What Not to Eat
  • 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 the following nutrients:

Protein

Americans aged 2 and up require 10–35 grams of protein daily, according to current dietary guidelines. Protein needs for children aged 6–23 months range from 11–13 grams. But you don't need dairy products to give you enough protein—even those who eat meat infrequently often exceed their minimum protein needs. For instance, the occasional 4 ounces of lean ground beef includes 23 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. Adults require 1,000–1,300 mg per day, while children under 2 require between 260–700 mg. 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. Good non-dairy 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 require less). Leafy greens, sweet potatoes, whole grains, and meat are good sources. Some cereals and types of bread 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, ideally from leaner sources. Fatty fish, in particular, is 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 (i.e., 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.

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.

Sample Shopping List

Because so many packaged and processed foods may contain traces of dairy, your safest bet on the dairy-free diet is choosing real, whole foods to avoid cross-contamination. If you do buy premade or packaged foods, be sure to read the labels carefully.

The following shopping list offers suggestions for getting started on a dairy-free diet. Note that this is not a definitive shopping list and you may find other foods that work better for you.

  • Dark leafy greens (kale, spinach, arugula, Swiss chard, collard greens)
  • Veggies (broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, bell peppers, mushrooms, carrots)
  • Fresh and frozen fruits (grapefruit, oranges, berries, bananas, apples)
  • Healthy fats (avocados, walnuts, almonds, chia seeds, flaxseeds, olive oil)
  • Grains (quinoa, white or brown rice, barley, couscous)
  • Legumes (black beans, pinto beans, lentils, chickpeas)
  • Meat and poultry (lean cuts of beef, chicken breast, turkey breast)
  • Fresh or frozen fish (halibut, salmon, cod, snapper, shrimp)
  • Fortified soy products (soy milk, soy yogurt)
  • Other plant-based milk alternatives (almond, coconut, hemp, flax)
  • Whole-grain bread
  • Eggs

Sample Meal Plan

There are endless ways to enjoy nutritious meals on a dairy-free diet—simply skip the cheese or substitute non-dairy plant-based milks for recipes that call for cow's milk.

The following three-day meal plan should give you a general sense of what a few days on a well-balanced dairy-free diet could look like. Note that this meal plan is not all-inclusive, and if you do choose to adopt this lifestyle, there may be other meals that are more appropriate for your tastes, preferences, and budget.

Day 1

Day 2

Day 3

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

  • Flexible eating patterns

  • Sustainable for the long term

Cons
  • Requires planning to meet nutritional needs

  • Some alternate foods may be costly

  • Strictly avoiding dairy can be difficult

Regardless of the health benefits, a dairy-free diet is not necessarily for everyone unless, of course, you have an allergy or intolerance. Review the pros and cons associated with the dairy-free lifestyle to determine if it's the right choice for you.

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.
  • 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 many children do outgrow their milk allergy).

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 some 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 being met with non-dairy 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 since many foods contain trace amounts of the proteins found in dairy.

Dairy can hide in everything from candy bars to sausage to shellfish, medicine, and chewing gum.

Is a Dairy-Free Diet a Healthy Choice for You?

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. People who follow a vegan diet avoid all animal products, including meat, poultry, eggs, fish, and dairy—but unlike those who avoid dairy due to allergies, the vegan diet is typically a choice.

On a gluten-free diet, you avoid gluten, which is a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye. 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. 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.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) recommends consuming low-fat dairy products as part of a balanced diet that includes a variety of nutrient-dense foods. However, the USDA acknowledges that there are other ways to meet your nutritional needs if you can't or prefer not to consume dairy, and recommends fortified soy-based products as an alternative.

If you cut dairy from your diet for health reasons, you'll want to make sure you're still getting enough calories each day to keep your body functioning optimally. Some people eliminate dairy from their diet to lose weight, but a dairy-free diet does not always lead to weight loss. If you're curious about how many calories you should be consuming to lose or maintain weight, this calculator can give you an estimate of your daily calorie needs.

The dairy-free diet mostly adheres to USDA guidelines for a healthy, balanced diet and is safe to follow so long as nutritional requirements are still being met.

Health Benefits

Alleviates Digestive Discomfort

Those who are allergic to milk or have an intolerance to lactose will likely experience relief from their associated symptoms when they stop consuming dairy products. Common symptoms such as bloating, gas, abdominal pain, nausea, and diarrhea usually resolve within 48 hours.

May Promote Weight Loss

Proponents of a dairy-free lifestyle often claim that avoiding dairy can lead to weight loss, but supporting evidence is lacking. Most research shows the inverse; that dairy consumption can promote weight loss and weight management.

May Clear Up Acne

Dairy consumption is often associated with an increased risk for developing acne. One study showed that low-fat dairy products were more likely to cause acne to flare up than full-fat dairy products. Those who choose to give up dairy products may notice a clearer complexion, but this may not always be the case for everyone.

Health Risks

Increased Risk for Nutrient Deficiencies

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. Just 10–15 minutes per day of direct sunlight in most locations is sufficient to prevent vitamin D deficiency, especially in the summer.

Calcium deficiencies are also associated with a dairy-free lifestyle. While research shows that avoiding dairy does not have a significant impact on the body's ability to absorb calcium, those with lactose intolerance may experience reduced bone density and be more susceptible to fractures from limiting or avoiding dairy.

A Word from Verywell

It may seem complicated to keep track of all the nutrients you need when you don't consume milk products. Luckily, you can 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. Getting a referral to a dietitian who's knowledgeable about allergy and diet issues can be helpful. That person can help you craft your diet so that you're not missing out on anything important.

Remember, following a long-term or short-term diet may not be necessary for you and many diets out there simply don’t work, especially long-term. While we do not endorse fad diet trends or unsustainable weight loss methods, we present the facts so you can make an informed decision that works best for your nutritional needs, genetic blueprint, budget, and goals.

If your goal is weight loss, remember that losing weight isn’t necessarily the same as being your healthiest self, and there are many other ways to pursue health. Exercise, sleep, and other lifestyle factors also play a major role in your overall health. The best diet is always the one that is balanced and fits your lifestyle.

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Article Sources
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