If you’ve been thinking about going dairy free, you’re not alone. A 2019 survey found that 12 percent of respondents drank only plant-based milk alternatives, while 26 percent drank both dairy and non-dairy milks. Although plant-based alternatives for dairy are growing in popularity, there’s still a lot of confusion around how healthy they are. Survey results showed that among non-dairy devotees, 23 percent thought plant-based milks had more nutrients than regular milk, 20 percent believed they had fewer nutrients, 19 percent considered them nutritionally equivalent, and a whopping 38 percent were unsure.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture considers dairy an important food group and recommends that adults get two to three "cup equivalent" servings of dairy a day. A "cup" of dairy is equal to 8 ounces of milk or yogurt, 1.5 ounces of hard cheese, one-third cup of shredded cheese, or 8 ounces of calcium-fortified soy milk. It’s the protein and the calcium in soy milk that makes it "count" as dairy, but not all plant-based dairy alternatives provide these benefits. In addition to nutritional content, there are a number of things you’ll want to consider and keep an eye out for if you’re planning on going dairy free.
It’s important to consider why you want to give up dairy
There are a number of reasons to consider ditching dairy — from lactose intolerance to a milk allergy to ethical concerns. Nevertheless, your motivation for cutting out dairy has a big impact on how strict you’ll need to be.
Two to three percent of children under the age of three have a milk allergy, and if you’re one of the 20 percent who never outgrew it, you’ll need to be diligent about avoiding milk and other dairy products entirely. It’s far more likely, however, that your digestive woes after eating dairy are due to lactose intolerance, which affects approximately 75 percent of the world’s population to varying degrees. In this case, you don’t necessarily have to give up dairy entirely — you may simply need to eat less of it, stick to dairy foods low in lactose such as yogurt and hard cheeses, or take lactase enzyme supplements.
If you have ethical or health concerns about how dairy cows are raised, you may feel comfortable getting dairy products from smaller, local farms that treat their animals humanely and don’t use growth hormones or antibiotics. In fact, grass-fed cows produce more nutritious milk.
Quitting dairy isn’t easy
Whatever your reason for going dairy free, be forewarned: It may not be easy. That’s because dairy products — especially those high in the milk protein casein, such as hard cheeses — may actually be addictive.
In an interview with Forbes, Neal Barnard, physician and clinical researcher, discussed the drug-like qualities of casomorphins, protein fragments found in cheese. Casomorphins are "a casein-derived morphine-like compound," according to the publication. Barnard explained, "These opiates attach to the same brain receptors that heroin and morphine attach to. They are not strong enough to get you arrested, but they are just strong enough to keep you coming back for more."
A 2015 study led by Dr. Erica M. Schulte confirmed the addictive quality of dairy. The experiment explored the addictiveness of different foods based on participants’ rankings and responses on the Yale Food Addiction Scale. Of the 35 foods examined, those containing dairy scored high. Ice cream was ranked second, pizza came in fourth, cheeseburgers came in ninth, and cheese was near the middle of the pack.
You’ll probably see a number of benefits when you give up dairy
Because 75 percent of individuals eventually lose the ability to digest the sugar lactase found in dairy products, there’s a good chance that going dairy free will clear up a number of issues related to lactose intolerance — even if that’s not the specific reason why you decided to drop dairy.
In an interview with Health Digest, registered dietitian Megan Wong explained that lactose that isn’t properly digested in the small intestine can wreak havoc once it gets to the large intestine, where it’s fermented by gut bacteria. The fermentation process creates gas, which can cause painful bloating and unwelcome flatulence.
But going without dairy can have benefits beyond your gastrointestinal tract. For one thing, you may find you have more energy. Wong explained, "When you eat something your body can’t digest, it gets stressed! This could be why dairy intolerance has been linked to fatigue." She also noted that going dairy free may lower systemic inflammation throughout the body and reduce the occurrence of inflammation-induced headaches. And, because dairy seems to be an acne trigger for many women, going dairy free could lead to fewer breakouts, according to Wong.
Will you lose weight on a dairy-free diet?
Giving up dairy might change the number on the scale, but perhaps not for the reason you think. In an interview with Health, Keri Grans, New York-based registered dietitian, explained that losing weight after going dairy free "is often due to how they consumed it [before], how much, and in what form." She continued, saying, "It’s not dairy itself, it’s the way it’s being consumed." So if you were regularly noshing on pizza and ice cream, you’ll probably lose a few pounds once you say goodbye to dairy. But if you were eating small portions of things like milk and yogurt, you may not see a change.
Interestingly, some research suggests that consuming dairy may actually aid in weight loss and other changes to body composition. According to a study published in 2011 in The Journal of Nutrition, a diet high in dairy products, in conjunction with high protein intake, was found to lead to greater fat loss and lean muscle gain.
When going dairy free, you’ll need to learn those food labels
If you plan to be strict about not consuming any dairy, you’ll have to pay close attention to the claims made on packaging. You’ll probably come across products labeled "lactose free." But as registered dietitian Trista Best explained, it’s a common mistake to assume this is the same as "dairy free." She told Health Digest, "Lactose is the milk sugar that has been removed from lactose-free products, but they may and often do still contain milk proteins whey and casein." If you’re lactose intolerant, however, lactose-free products are a safe bet.
According to the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, "dairy free" is not a term regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). While the FDA doesn’t allow manufacturers to make false or misleading claims, the lack of a formal definition means that there’s no guarantee that dairy won’t be present. This means choosing "dairy-free" foods could be a risky move for people with a milk allergy.
While there is an FDA-regulated definition for "nondairy," products with this label can actually include caseinates (derived from the milk protein casein), according to the university. As such, they may be unsafe for those with a milk allergy.
A surprising amount of foods contain dairy
Unfortunately, going dairy free isn’t as easy as simply cutting out obvious sources like yogurt and cheese. The organization Go Dairy Free published a helpful list of ingredients that definitely, potentially, or rarely contain milk — because yes, you will need a guide to navigate the dairy-free aisle. For example, calcium caseinate is always derived from milk, but calcium lactate rarely contains dairy. Other ingredients, such as probiotic bacteria cultures and the vague designation "natural flavors" may — or may not — contain dairy.
Staying away from dairy can be particularly difficult when eating out, since you don’t have easy access to the ingredients list of dishes at restaurants and food trucks. You’ll need to be proactive and plan ahead when eating out. As registered dietitian Trista Best told Health Digest, "It may be necessary to call ahead to restaurants to ensure you can get certain menu items truly dairy free. If you wait until you arrive you’ll likely be unable to place an order that you can be confident is dairy free." She explained that this is due to the many hidden sources of dairy; even hot dogs are not dairy free unless they’re kosher.
You may need to experiment with a lot of plant-based milks before you find one that works for you
Although there are many plant-based dairy alternatives to choose from, it can be tricky to find the one that fits your needs and taste preferences the best. You may end up needing to use several types of non-dairy milk to replace the single carton of regular milk you once used for everything from cooking to baking to pouring on your morning cereal.
In an interview with Self, registered dietitian Marisa Moore outlined the flavor profiles and best uses for a number of plant-based milks. She noted that almond milk is mild and versatile, saying, "It works well as a good background ingredient in things like smoothies, lattes, lighter sauces." She highlighted soy milk as the most nutritionally similar to cow’s milk, but pointed out that it can have a distinct taste that only some people enjoy. Oat milk emulsifies better into hot beverages than most plant-based milks, making it a great choice for non-dairy coffee creamer. Rice milk has the thinnest consistency, and hemp milk is very nutritious with a light taste, though can be harder to find.
Plant-based dairy alternatives are often highly processed
While dairy products usually have a short and simple ingredient list, the same isn’t always true for plant-based alternatives. In order to improve the taste and texture of these products, manufacturers often add ingredients such as extra starch, thickening agents, artificial or natural flavoring, and preservatives. The more processed a product, the more likely it is to have these filler ingredients.
Regarding plant-based cheese alternatives, for example, Healthline noted, "Some of the more processed types of vegan cheese contain large amounts of refined oils, preservatives, color additives and sodium while being mostly void of substantial nutritional value."
One ingredient often used as a thickener, emulsifier, and preservative is carrageenan. Although carrageenan is a natural ingredient derived from red seaweed, it’s highly controversial. Critics contend that it can cause inflammation, bloating, and other forms of GI upset, as well as increase your risk for food allergies and colon cancer, Healthline explained. A review, published in Environmental Health Perspectives, concluded, "Because of the acknowledged carcinogenic properties of degraded carrageenan in animal models and the cancer-promoting effects of undegraded carrageenan in experimental models, the widespread use of carrageenan in the Western diet should be reconsidered."
If you’re keeping an eye on added sugar, you’ll need to read nutrition labels closely
There’s a lot of confusion surrounding dairy, plant-based alternatives, and added sugar. According to a 2019 survey, 20 percent of participants erroneously believed that dairy milk contains added sugar while 23 percent believed plant-based alternatives contained no added sugar and 34 percent believed that they did. The truth is that some do and some don’t, so if you’re trying to avoid added sugar, you’ll need to check the packaging.
Manufacturers will add sugar to make dairy alternatives tastier, but most companies offer unsweetened options as well. Silk’s Original Soymilk, for example, contains 5 grams of added sugar whereas the brand’s Vanilla Soymilk contains 8 grams. Silk’s Organic Unsweet Soymilk contains only 1 gram of naturally occurring sugar and 0 grams of added sugar.
Consuming too much added sugar can increase your risk for a variety of issues, including heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. According to the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, Americans should receive no more than 10 percent of their calories from added sugar. That works out to 13.3 teaspoons of sugar for someone eating 2,000 calories a day. The average American, however, consumes 42.5 teaspoons of sugar daily, the New Hampshire Department of Health and Services explained.
If you go dairy free, you’ll need to find alternate sources of calcium
Everyone knows you need calcium to build strong bones, but, according to the Mayo Clinic, your heart, muscles, and nerves also need this mineral to function properly. It may also protect against high blood pressure, cancer, and diabetes. Adults need between 1,000 and 1,200 mg daily depending on age and sex.
Dairy is a great source of calcium. For example, a cup of milk contains 300 mg and a cup of yogurt contains 450 mg. Healthline noted that while many plant-based milks are fortified with calcium, this isn’t always the case, and homemade nut milks definitely won’t contain any.
Luckily, there are many other foods that are good sources of calcium. If you don’t mind the taste, some kinds of canned fish are a great option. A 3.75-ounce can of sardines, for example, contains approximately 35 percent of the recommended daily amount of calcium. Beans are another good choice: A cup of cooked white beans provides 13 percent. Leafy greens can also be high in calcium, but they also contain oxalates, which can hinder calcium absorption.
Many dairy alternatives contain little protein
Along with carbohydrates and fats, protein is one of the three macronutrients that provide the body with energy. According to WebMD, protein is also important for building and repairing tissues and an important building block for enzymes, hormones, bone, blood, and skin.
Dairy is a great source of protein. Healthline noted that a cup of milk contains 8 grams of protein, while a cup of whole-fat yogurt provides 9 grams (and Greek or nonfat yogurt can provide much more). But when it comes to dairy alternatives, most are wimpy in this department. A cup of soy milk provides 7 grams and oat milk provides 4, which isn’t so bad, but rice, almond, and cashew milk each provide only 1 gram each, while coconut and flaxseed milks provide none. A serving of hemp yogurt contains an impressive 11 grams whereas almond milk-based yogurt contains only 3 grams.
Nevertheless, you don’t have to get your protein from your plant-based dairy alternatives. Meat, eggs, and beans are good options. If you’re giving up dairy as part of going vegan, you may need to take extra care to ensure you’re getting enough protein.
When you go dairy free, you may not get enough potassium
One mineral that probably isn’t on your mind much is potassium. But it should be, because getting enough of this important electrolyte is vital for good health. According to Healthline, potassium can help lower blood pressure, reduce your risk of stroke and osteoporosis, and prevent painful kidney stones. While there’s no official Reference Daily Intake (RDI) for potassium, most experts agree that adults should aim to get at least 3,500 mg daily. Unfortunately, very few people seem to get this amount.
Registered dietitian Megan Wong told Health Digest, "Dairy is a good source of potassium. For example, you get around 400 mg in a single serving of milk or yogurt." She pointed out, however, that many other foods are rich sources of potassium. To get roughly the same amount of potassium that’s in one serving of milk or yogurt, you could eat a banana, half a cup of sweet potato or spinach, or three-quarter cup of lentils or beans.
Sticking to a dairy-free diet can be expensive
Giving up dairy can be as hard on your wallet as it is on your willpower. According to Healthline, plant-based dairy alternatives often cost more than traditional dairy products. Even simply switching to lactose-free dairy products can be pricey. A 2013 conference paper found huge price discrepancies between lactose-free and traditional dairy products, including higher prices for lactose-free milk drinks, yogurts, and desserts.
A 2005 study published in the European Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology concluded that having a food allergy or intolerance (such as a milk allergy or lactose intolerance) carries with it a number of increased costs. Not only will individuals have to pay more for food alternatives, but they may also incur more medical costs.
If you want or need to give up dairy but money is tight, one option is to make your own plant-based milk. The process is easy and simply involves soaking nuts overnight to soften them, blending them with water, and then straining the mixture through a nut milk bag.
Eating dairy free can be trickier if you have food allergies
While some people give up dairy because they have a milk allergy, if you have other food allergies or sensitivities it may be more difficult to find safe plant-based alternatives. A soy allergy, for example, affects up to 0.4 percent of children. While many outgrow the condition by age 10, some do not. If you’re allergic to soy, soy milk is automatically off the table, as are any other soy-containing products.
Tree nut allergies can also present a problem for people desiring a dairy-free lifestyle. According to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology, tree nuts include almonds, cashews, Brazil nuts, hazelnuts, walnuts, pecans, and pistachios. While having a tree nut allergy doesn’t necessarily mean you’re allergic to every type of tree nut, you may have to avoid certain non-dairy products made from nuts.
Soy and tree nuts are among the eight most common food allergens, but it’s also possible to have an allergy or sensitivity to other plants used to make dairy alternatives. Healthline noted that while rare, some people are allergic or sensitive to oats. It is also possible to be allergic or sensitive to rice.