Welcome to the dairy free diet review, the first ever article of the Diet-review series, where we’ll be reviewing a new diet every week and reporting the results in a “Report Card.”
Going on a dairy-free diet is becoming more and more popular. From “eat clean rules” that advocate against dairy to the media pushing dairy out to milk alternatives coming on the market, it’s no wonder that more and more people stop drinking milk.
So I, Maria, asked Rachael Link, Fitness Reloaded’s in-house Registered Dietitian, to examine the evidence and review the dairy-free diet.
Notice that the dairy-free diet plan review is done mainly from a nutritional standpoint, not from a religious or belief-based one. Also, the focus here is on examining cutting out dairy as a whole, not eating less or more of it, or debating the “ideal” daily dairy serving.
A few months ago, Vox published a video endorsing a dairy free diet and implying that the government might have had some financial influence from the dairy industry to support milk consumption.
It’s true that the government has traditionally always been pro-milk. Dairy has held on tight to its spot on the food pyramid and the new Healthy Eating Plate, is considered a staple in the National School Lunch and Breakfast Programs, and has been included in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans since they were first published in 1977.
It’s also true that the dairy industry has spent some serious dough promoting milk consumption.
In fact, since I was a kid, I’ve had it pretty much drilled into my head that dairy is an important part of the diet.
I’m still haunted by those cheesy commercials with the kids chanting “More Ovaltine, please!” and I remember being blasted by billboards featuring celebrities with milk mustaches.
Up until recently, milk was universally revered for its potent bone-building superpowers. Even my mother was insistent on me drinking a glass every morning before school, because “milk builds strong bones!”
A dairy free diet? Who’d have thunk it?
It’s hard to go a day without hearing about dairy being blamed for a new health problem.
Articles crop up all across the Internet every single day touting the benefits of a dairy free diet, claiming that it will do everything from deflating stomach bloat to slashing your risk of cancer. Other sources are quick to decry milk with outrageous claims (one of the most ludicrous: “pus cells” in milk…yes, really).
Yet, the most recent 2015 Dietary Guidelines recommend 2 cups of dairy products for children 2-3 years old, 2.5 cups for kids 4-8, and 3 cups for preteens, teens, and adults. For those who are lactose-intolerant, it suggests opting for lactose-free or low-lactose milk products.
Still, Americans are drinking less milk now than ever.
According to a report published in the Economic Research Report, though cheese consumption has actually increased, per capita milk consumption has dropped from 0.96 cup-equivalents to about 0.61 cup-equivalents daily since 1970.
Some theorize that this could be due to increasing competition of beverage choices. These days, kids (and adults) are inundated with new products, ranging from soft drinks to sports drinks. Additionally, the food environment has changed dramatically over the years as we eat less and less at home.
Moreover, many Americans are simply choosing to cut dairy out of their diet. According to Dr. Oz, dairy could be responsible for your high cholesterol, joint pain, decreased energy levels and heartburn. And Dr. Oz is never wrong, right? (/sarcasm)
But is it all a government conspiracy or should dairy really be included in our diet?
Instead of succumbing to marketing ploys and hidden agendas, let’s look at the facts behind the dairy free diet.
7 things to consider before switching to a dairy free diet
1) You can still consume dairy, even if you’re lactose intolerant.
Also: just because some people are lactose intolerant, that doesn’t mean that you should stop drinking milk or consuming dairy. But let’s take it from the beginning:
You’ve probably heard of lactose before, but do you know what it is?
Lactose is a type of sugar that’s found in milk and is responsible for its sweetness. When we eat foods that contain lactose, our body produces an enzyme called lactase that is responsible for breaking down and digesting the lactose.
The problem is that many people lose their ability to produce lactase shortly after weaning. This condition is called “lactose intolerance” and it basically means that you are unable to fully digest those lactose sugars in milk. This equates to some unpleasant symptoms like bloating, cramps, and diarrhea. Not fun.
It’s estimated that around 65-75% of the world is lactose intolerant, and about 25% of the US has the condition.
Certain ethnic groups are more likely to become lactose intolerant than others. About 90% of Asian Americans, for example, have the condition compared to only 5% of those of Northern European descent.
Many people adopt a dairy free diet thinking that dairy free and lactose free are synonymous. That’s not the case.
In fact, there are plenty of dairy products that can be consumed even with a lactase deficiency. Butter and many varieties of cheese contain zero grams of carbohydrates, meaning next to no lactose. Greek yogurt is also often well-tolerated by those with lactose intolerance and contains beneficial probiotics that can help the digestion process.
There are also lactose-free versions of many dairy products, including milk, cheese, and yogurt. If those products are still causing you symptoms, it might be time to re-evaluate and determine if there’s another type of intolerance or allergy at play.
2) Switching to a dairy free diet will eliminate beneficial nutrients.
Eliminating dairy from the diet can have serious implications on your health, especially if you’re not careful about replacing those nutrients you’re cutting out.
One cup of milk can help meet your daily needs by providing:
- Calcium (30% of DV)
- Vitamin B-12 (18% of DV)
- Potassium (10% of DV)
- Phosphorus (22% of DV)
- Vitamin D (24% of DV)
- Vitamin A, Vitamin B-6, Vitamin B-2, Magnesium, and Zinc
(Note: Milk is not a natural source of Vitamin D and that’s why you won’t find any in raw milk. Vitamin D is a food additive that manufacturers add to (pasteurized) milk to fortify it and reduce the prevalence of Vitamin D deficiency.)
Milk is also considered a high-quality protein, meaning it contains all essential amino acids in sufficient amounts and with sufficient digestibility to support health.
Also: fatty acids. Cow’s milk contains conjugated linoleic acid (CLA). This form of fatty acid has been heavily researched for its potential health benefits, including weight control and heart health.
- A meta-analysis published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition looked at the results of 18 studies and concluded that a dose of 3.2 grams of CLA is associated with a modest loss of body fat.
- A 2013 animal study investigating the effects of CLA-enhanced ghee (a butter derivative) on heart health found that increased intake of CLA decreased serum cholesterol and triglyceride levels while increasing HDL (“good” cholesterol) levels in the blood.
3) Dairy builds stronger bones. You’ll have to make up for this if you go on a dairy free diet.
It turns out that the saying “milk builds strong bones” is actually pretty true. According to a study by Wadolowska et al that looked at the association between diet and bone mineral density, dairy consumption in childhood and adolescence could prevent the risk of osteoporosis in adult women.
Though milk-doubters like to refer to studies like this one showing that higher intake of milk doesn’t protect against bone fractures, there are a few key points that should be addressed.
- Bone health is multifactorial and many components, including genetics, body weight, physical activity, smoking, and drinking, can determine the risk of fractures.
- Association does not equal causation. Period.
- The aforementioned study notes that higher intakes of calcium are not protective, but that doesn’t mean that calcium intake as a whole is not an important part of bone health. Simply put, it may just be that more is not always better.
- Calcium is included as an essential part of bone health by NIH Osteoporosis and Related Bone Diseases National Resource Center, The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, and The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics among other reputable sources.
Obviously not all dairy products are created equal, however. High-fat types of cheese and butter might not boast as stellar a nutrition profile as milk and there is a countless assortment of dairy products available with varying amounts of fat, vitamins, and minerals.
The bottom line, however, is that anytime you take something out of the diet, it requires careful planning and consideration to ensure that you’re making up for it somewhere else.
4) Going on a dairy-free diet plan won’t help you lose weight.
All too often, celebs and self-proclaimed “nutrition experts” have peddled the dairy free diet as a quick way to lose weight. Sorry, but it’s likely not the case for most people.
In fact, there’s a pretty good amount of research indicating that dairy might actually help, not hinder, weight loss.
A meta-analysis in the International Journal of Obesity found that an increase in dairy consumption had no real impact on weight loss without energy restriction. Meanwhile, inclusion of dairy in an energy-restricted diet enhanced weight loss, increased lean body mass, and led to a greater reduction in body mass.
Though the mechanism is unclear, the protein in dairy products digests slowly, meaning it’s a great choice for promoting satiety and preventing hunger between meals.
So why do so many people claim that the dairy free diet worked wonders on reducing their weight and their waistline?
It’s safe to assume that any time you eliminate a food group from your diet, there’s a good chance you’ll lose weight…temporarily, at least. What you replace it with is what really matters, though.
Cutting out ice cream and replacing it with fruit will almost certainly yield weight loss, but trading in your yogurt for a sugary snack? Unfortunately not as effective.
5) You don’t have to go on a dairy-free diet to avoid saturated fat.
Although it remains a controversial topic, current research seems to have come to the consensus that saturated fat is not good for you…but it’s also not inherently bad, either.
What is really important is what you replace saturated fat with in your diet.
According to a 2015 study in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, replacing 5% of energy intake from saturated fat in the diet with polyunsaturated fats and monounsaturated fats dropped the risk of coronary heart disease by 25% and 15%, respectively. Meanwhile, replacing saturated fats with carbohydrates from refined starches and added sugars had no significant effect on CHD risk.
That doesn’t mean you should take that as your cue to go load up on red meat and butter, especially since the American Heart Association recommends limiting saturated fat to 5-6% of total energy intake. It does mean, however that a fear of saturated fat shouldn’t be fueling your decision to go dairy free.
Also, there are dairy products lower in fat. So if you want to cut down on saturated fat, e.g., go fro the 2% or 0% option rather than getting whole milk.
6) If acne is pushing you to a dairy free diet, association does not equal causation.
A common reason for adhering to a dairy free diet is its purported beneficial effects on acne.
The connection between acne and milk consumption is often attributed to the presence of a hormone called insulin-like growth factor 1. This hormone is found naturally in cow’s milk (regardless of whether it’s conventional or organic milk) but it is also produced endogenously in our bodies and can be found in saliva, biliary fluid, and pancreatic juices.
There is existing research demonstrating a link between acne severity and IGF-1 levels.
- According to a 2005 study published in the journal Archives of Dermatology, increased levels of IGF-1 correlated with acne lesion counts in adult women with acne.
- Another recent study by Rahaman et al produced similar findings, reporting that mean plasma levels of IGF-1 were positively correlated with acne severity.
So does that mean that it’s time to clean the fridge out of any and all dairy products for good? Not quite.
According to the American Cancer Society, studies have found that adults who drink milk have 10% higher serum levels of IGF-1 than adults who drink little to no milk. This same finding has been reported for those who drink soy milk, however, suggesting that cow’s milk isn’t necessarily to blame for increased IGF-1 levels.
Furthermore, according to the FDA, very little IGF-1 is actually absorbed after consumption. In fact, the concentration of IGF-1 found in milk from cows treated with growth hormones is actually much lower than the amounts produced in our own bodies.
To put it simply, there might be an association between acne severity and dairy consumption but there’s no evidence to suggest that dairy actually causes acne.
If you have found that reducing your dairy intake has helped improve your skin, then by all means continue. Expecting a dairy free diet to be the solution to achieving flawless skin, however, is a little unrealistic.
7) And in case you were wondering, you’re not depriving a little calf from milk by consuming dairy.
Many people are claiming that by consuming dairy we’re “stealing” the milk that was meant for young calves. But is that true? We went directly to the source and asked Dairy Carrie, a dairy farmer in a family farm, about what is really happening:
“For thousands of years humans have been breeding cows for milk production. Today’s dairy cows produce far more milk than one calf could possibly drink.
Calves on farms are in no way deprived of milk and are fed milk as the main component of their diet for the first 2-3 months of their lives. Some farms, including ours use milk replacer, which is made from milk, rather than whole milk from the cows. This is done to help control consistency of fat and protein levels in milk and stop possible disease spread.
Many farms use pasteurizers and feed their calves whole milk from their cows. Either way, calves get the milk they need.”
Other common claims about dairy that have been debunked:
- It’s not natural to drink milk (we also didn’t always use computers or cars, and yes, the internet—should we stop using them just because they’re man-made?)
- Raw milk is a better option than pasteurized (…if you’re looking to catch a potentially deadly foodborne illness, then okay!)
- Dairy causes inflammation (yes…but only if you have a milk allergy)
- Milk contains “pus” (white blood cells sure, but “pus?” Um no)
Dairy Free Diet Report Card
Depending on how much dairy you already consume, making the switch can be quite challenging, especially given the many hidden sources of dairy. The hardest part will likely be the willpower required to refrain from the occasional delicious dairy indulgence (I’m shuddering imagining no pizza ever).
If you don’t have a medical condition that requires you to cut out the dairy, you’re not going to see any benefits when you nix it from your diet.
It’s entirely possible to get those nutrients from other sources, but it requires a little extra effort. Do your homework and/or consult with a dietitian to make sure you’re meeting your needs through other sources.
Final Grade: C
So you decided to go on a dairy free diet? Here are a few tips to make it work.
The dairy free diet is a good choice for:
- milk allergies
- personal preference
The most important thing is making sure that you are getting the nutrients you might be missing out on from another source:
Calcium can also be found in dark leafy greens, tofu, almonds, and canned fish with bones while vitamin B12 is found in fortified products and animal products, including eggs, fish, meat, and poultry.
If your diet doesn’t include any of those things, you might want to consider supplementation to make sure you’re getting enough.
Otherwise, a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains should be able to meet the rest of your nutrition needs.
Bottom line, though: there’s really no nutritional need to switch to a dairy free diet. Skip the dairy free diet and instead focus on an overall nutritious diet to get the heath benefits you’re looking for.
Have you ever followed a dairy free diet? I would love to hear what fueled your decision and how your experience was—leave a comment below!
Chinnadurai K, Kanwal HK, Tyagi AK, Stanton C, Ross P. High conjugated linoleic acid enriched ghee (clarified butter) increases the antioxidant and antiatherogenic potency in female Wistar rats. Lipids Health Dis. 2013;12:121.
Li Y, Hruby A, Bernstein AM, et al. Saturated Fats Compared With Unsaturated Fats and Sources of Carbohydrates in Relation to Risk of Coronary Heart Disease: A Prospective Cohort Study. J Am Coll Cardiol. 2015;66(14):1538-48.
Rahaman SM, De D, Handa S, et al. Association of insulin-like growth factor (IGF)-1 gene polymorphisms with plasma levels of IGF-1 and acne severity. J Am Acad Dermatol. 2016.
Stewart H, Dong D, Carlson A. Why Are Americans Consuming Less Fluid Milk? A Look at Generational Differences in Intake Frequency. ERR. 2013;149.
Wadalowksa L, Sobas K, Szczepanska JW, et al. Dairy Products, Dietary Calcium, and Bone Health: Possibility of Prevention of Osteoporosis in Women: The Polish Experience. Nutrients. 2013;5(7):2684-2707.
Whigham LD, Watras AC, Schoeller DA. Efficacy of conjugated linoleic acid for reducing fat mass: a meta-analysis in humans. Am J Clin Nutr. 2007;85(5):1203-11.