Approximately 68 percent of people worldwide have a reduced ability to digest lactose, a sugar in milk. This condition is known as lactose malabsorption or lactose intolerance. Sufferers experience digestive distress after eating milk, cheese, yogurt, butter and products containing milk and its derivatives. Luckily, there are plenty of dairy-free foods you can include in your diet to meet your daily nutritional needs.
Why Cut Out Dairy?
If you experience bloating, gas, nausea, or diarrhea after eating milk and dairy, you may have lactose intolerance. Sometimes, these symptoms are accompanied by wheezing, swelling in the face and lips, hives or rashes, which may indicate a dairy allergy. Both conditions can be successfully managed by cutting out milk and its derivatives from your diet.
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Some people with lactose intolerance can still eat small amounts of cheese, yogurt and other dairy foods. Others, though, can't even touch these products. If you're allergic to dairy, it's recommended to avoid milk altogether. Other health conditions, such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and irritable bowel disorders like ulcerative colitis and Crohn's disease may affect your ability to digest dairy too.
According to a 2014 review published in the World Journal of Gastroenterology, IBS sufferers are more likely to report perceived intolerance to these foods. Even if you don't have any of these conditions, you may still want to cut out milk and dairy when switching to a vegan diet. A recent meta-analysis of several studies published in PLOS ONE in 2018 has linked plant-based diets with lower rates of cardiovascular problems, elevated cholesterol, weight gain and hypertension.
What Foods Contain Dairy?
A dairy-free shopping list can include any fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds, herbs, spices and vegetable oils. Meat and eggs are safe too. There's a catch, though, any of these foods can be contaminated with dairy. Almond and soy milk, for example, are often processed in facilities that handle dairy foods, so they may contain traces of milk.
Make sure you read food labels as you put together a dairy-free grocery list. Manufacturers are legally required to list any potential allergens, including milk, peanuts, eggs and so on. Also, beware that milk and its derivatives are often listed under other names that you may not be familiar with. Caseinate, hydrolyzed casein, half & half, lactoglobulin, lactalbumin and paneer are just a few to mention.
In general, processed foods are more likely to contain dairy. Casein, for instance, is often used as a binder in deli meats. Canned tuna fish may contain this protein too. Dairy can also sneak into chewing gum, instant mashed potatoes, canned soups, chips, margarine, bread, pastries and pudding.
If you're avoiding dairy, you may not get enough calcium in your diet. For bone health, be sure to include nondairy sources of calcium such as calcium-fortified orange juice or breakfast cereal, canned salmon or sardines, soybeans, tofu and leafy greens.
Fruits Are a Safe Choice
Fresh, frozen and canned fruits are all dairy-free. From apples and melons to berries and pineapple, your options are endless. These foods pack a hefty nutritional punch and make a healthy addition to any diet. Soak your morning cereals in fresh fruit juice instead of milk, use fruit puree instead of cream in homemade cakes and swap milkshakes for fruit smoothies.
A 2015 review published in the Iranian Journal of Public Health confirms that eating plenty of fruits and vegetables aids in weight management and wards off chronic diseases. Rich in fiber and antioxidants, these foods balance the gut flora, reduce oxidative stress and improve cardiovascular risk factors. Furthermore, they're loaded with phytochemicals that may help prevent weight gain and obesity by suppressing the growth of fat tissue.
Eat Your Veggies
Fresh and frozen veggies contain no milk or dairy. If you prefer canned varieties, read the label beforehand. Steer clear of vegetables coated in butter and creamed vegetables.
Read more: 10 Sneaky Ways to Eat More Vegetables
You can't go wrong with a handful of fresh spinach, kale, lettuce or radishes. Just make sure you don't use any sauces and salad dressings made with yogurt or cream. When dining out, request the sauce on the side. Add olive oil and vinegar or freshly squeezed lemon juice to your favorite salads.
Are Nuts and Seeds Safe?
Add raw nuts and seeds to your dairy-free grocery list. These foods are high in healthy fats, protein and dietary fiber. Cashews, almonds, walnuts, pistachios, sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds and chia seeds are all excellent choices despite their high calorie content.
According to a 2014 article featured in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, regular consumption of nuts may help prevent weight gain and aid in weight loss by suppressing hunger and increasing metabolism. Over time, they may lower the risk of diabetes. Nuts, especially pistachios, also appear to have beneficial effects on blood pressure and protect against cardiovascular disease.
Beware that nut milk, peanut/almond butter and mixed nuts may be processed in facilities that handle milk and dairy. For example, almost 150,000 almond milk containers were recalled due to cow's milk contamination in 2018. Peanut butter may contain milk solids. However, you should find this information on the label.
What About Potatoes and Starches?
Raw potatoes and starches don't contain milk or dairy, but cook them at home to stay safe. Instant potatoes, scalloped potatoes, dehydrated potato flakes and au gratin dishes, on the other hand, are often made with milk ingredients. The same goes for potato chips and frozen French fries, which may be sprayed with lactose.
If you're allergic to dairy, it's better to avoid ordering potatoes when dining out. These starches are usually stored and cooked along with other foods that may contain dairy. Additionally, most potato dishes served at restaurants are made with sour cream, butter and other milk derivatives.
Other Dairy-Free Foods
A dairy-free diet list may also include plain meat and eggs, whole grains, legumes, soy products, gravies made with water or plant milks, honey, raw cocoa, coconut oil and more. As a rule of thumb, avoid processed foods and make a habit of checking food labels. Consider using dairy substitutes, such as almond milk and soy yogurt.
Read more: Should You Cut Dairy From Your Diet?
Some products can be tricky. It's not uncommon to see fruit smoothies, bread, cereals, rice cakes or pasta containing milk. If you're allergic to dairy, avoid these foods altogether. Prepare them at home so you can have full control over the ingredients used. Swap cheese for tofu or nutritional yeast, replace cow's milk with almond or rice milk, and use coconut oil instead of butter in baked goods.
Let's say you love cheese. There are plenty of dairy-free foods you can use as a substitute. Almond cheese, for instance, is a lot more nutritious and contains no lactose. All you need is a cup of raw almonds, water, olive oil, lemon juice and salt. Nutritional yeast, which is loaded with protein and B vitamins, can replace Parmesan and grated cheese in most recipes.
- The Lancelet: Country, Regional, and Global Estimates for Lactose Malabsorption in Adults
- WebMD: Lactose Intolerance vs. Dairy Allergy
- NCBI: Irritable Bowel Syndrome and Food Interaction
- PLOS ONE: Cardiometabolic Risk Factors in Vegans: A Meta-Analysis of Observational Studies
- GoDairyFree: Dairy Ingredient List
- NCBI: Fruit and Vegetable Intake: Benefits and Progress of Nutrition Education Interventions - Narrative Review Article
- The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition: Long-Term Associations of Nut Consumption With Body Weight and Obesity
- The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition: The Effect of Tree Nut, Peanut, and Soy Nut Consumption on Blood Pressure
- Plant Based News: Almond Breeze Recalled Due to Potential Cow's Milk Contamination
- The Spruce Eats: Homemade Almond Cheese Recipe
- NIH: Symptoms & Causes of Lactose Intolerance
- The Dairy Alliance: Lactose Intolerance
- IBD Relief: Dairy and Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD)
- WebMD: Living With a Milk Allergy
- Drugs.com: Lactose Free Diet
- Hopkins Medicine: Milk Allergy Diet
- Today's Dietician: The Wonders of Nuts and Seeds
- ChooseMyPlate: Nondairy Sources of Calcium
Is this an emergency? If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911.