7 Things To Consider Before Adopting A Dairy Free Diet Plan.

dairy free diet

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.

Enter Rachael:

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.

Dairy Free Diet plan

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

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.

dairy free diet review

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.

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.

dairy free 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.

Dairy Free Diet
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.

Dairy Free Diet
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.

dairy free diet

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:

Dairy Free Diet

Dairy Free Diet Report Card

Sustainability: B
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).

Effectiveness: F
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.

Nutrition: B
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
  • veganism
  • 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.

dairy free diet benefits

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!

Click here to view the sources referenced in this article.

Related Articles


Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

  1. Great post that I completely agree with! There is so much misinformation about dairy that is found on the internet and this sets the record straight. Dairy is an important part of a healthy diet. In fact, chocolate milk happens to be my favorite post workout drink.

    1. Hi Kim! That’s exactly the goal with this series, to set the record straight when it comes to some popular diets. Thanks for dropping by!

  2. Really good article guys! In Canada, calcium and vitamin D intake are problematic ( according to our last most comprehensive national survey). Although not 100% necessary to achieve a balanced nutrient intake, Cow’s milk and other dairy products are an easy and affordable vehicle for these and other important nutrients. If you don’t consume dairy for personal reasons/beliefs, I completely respect that choice, just make sure you adjust the rest of your diet accordingly.

    1. Hi Andy! Yes, Vitamin D deficiency is also prevalent in the USA (not sure about calcium.) I totally agree – consuming dairy makes it a bit easier to get these but that of course doesn’t mean that there is no other way. Thanks for dropping by!

  3. I thought this was a really well-balanced article with some great references. Good job! I also appreciated you busting many myths about a dairy-free diet. One thing I’ve noticed is that there are even some name brand organic whole milks available in grocery stores that do NOT have vitamin D! I don’t think many people are aware of this.

    1. Hi Leah, thanks for dropping by. I wasn’t aware of it actually. Why would they skip adding Vitamin D? To save money or to claim their milk is “natural?”

    2. Yep. I was told a story about some young person who went to work in a dairy processing plant, only to quit a few days later, telling everyone he was not going to work in a place where “they added all those chemicals to milk”. Arrrrg.

  4. Great article! Very good info to share with clients. Due to allergies, I have to follow dairy-free. I’ve always found it difficult to get enough calcium from my diet without taking a supplement.

    1. Thank you Kaitlyn! Allergies suck. A friend commented on facebook that dairy allergies are even worse for people with toddlers and that’s not just from a nutritional standpoint – e.g., having to leave a party when the ice-cream shows up, etc.

  5. Hey… Quite useful info. Dairy, indeed, is an important part of life. The only concern I have is regarding its cholesterol and saturated fat content which eventually is leading to many cardiovascular diseases across the world. Of course, the same is the case with non vegetarian food items but dairy products can also be not ignored. Veganism is going popular across the world mostly due to it’s cardio-protective benefits.

  6. Thanks for the article! I had milk allergy as a child, quite difficult to deal with especially at the time when there were no other options. Now I am “only” lactose intolerant so I follow a diet. I drink lactose free milk and eat Greek yogurt. I didn’t know butter was lactose free though! May I ask where I can find a reliable list of lactose content in dairy products? By the way, I live in the Netherlands where milk is a big staple in the diet!

  7. “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.”
    […] “Association does not equal causation. Period.”

    You can’t refute milk not protecting from fractures with “correlation does not mean causation” and use association to say milk builds stronger bones.

    (I like the rest of the article, I’m just pointing out flawed logic here: I still don’t know if milk is any good for bones, and I’ve definitely heard propaganda going both directions on that topic…)

    1. Yves, there are some correlations that can be, and are, rooted in solid mechanistic evidence, and other correlations that have no underlying mechanistic basis. So there is no “flawed logic” here, it just points out that there are seldom easy explanations. Much of the dietary hype that Maria and Rachael are trying to set straight with this series of essays is due to people repeatedly seeing a correlation and jumping to a (usually financially or ideologically convenient) conclusion without first looking for the mechanistic explanation for the correlation.

  8. Thank you Maria and Rachael for a well written essay rooted solidly in current consensus scientific evidence.
    One interesting observation not reported here is the clinical finding that only a small percentage of the people who claim to have lactose intolerance actually do have the condition.
    As the essay states, lactose intolerance is due to the loss of an enzyme that is produced by all neonatal mammals. There is some very interesting paleobiology behind the fact that nearly 90% of all people of northern European descent retain the ability to digest lactose as adults. I published a longer article about this, which you may read here: https://issuu.com/the_communicator/docs/marchapril_communicator (pg 19) but I’ll summarize it here.
    First, a quick bit of molecular biology: the production of lactase, the enzyme produced by the digestive track of all neonatal mammals, is suppressed in most adult mammals due to the activation of a gene that produces a product that causes the gene encoding lactase to not be transcribed. (It is common to find that when a produce “A” is not needed by our body, product “B” is made to “turn off” product “A”.)
    O.K., so how does it happen that 90% of adult humans of northern European descent produce lactase, and therefore can digest lactose? The answer is: a genetic mutation, specifically a mutation in the gene that produces the product that “turns off” the production of lactase.
    So why would only people in certain areas of the world (those areas where people have consumed milk for thousands of years) have this mutation? The available evidence suggests that sometime between 5,000 and 8,000 years ago in what is now Germany, life was pretty tough, with multiple instances of widespread starvation. But people in that area at that time maintained domesticated cattle, and the people who had this mutation could drink milk. The cattle survived on forage that people cannot digest; by drinking milk the people had a source of nutrition not otherwise available. In times when food was scarce, the people who could drink milk had a lower chance of starving to death than did people who could not digest milk.
    The “selective pressure” of famine, over many generations of northern Europeans, resulted in people who could drink milk having more reproductive success than did those who could not.
    So, in areas of the world where there was the pressure of repeated food shortages applied to people who had previously domesticated cattle, lactase persistence became a dominate trait.
    The bottom line: far from adults drinking milk being “unnatural” (as some people claim), the ability to drink milk is the result of a natural genetic mutation that allowed generations of people to survive in times of food shortages. There is much more to this story, including the evidence that the ancestors of all domestic cattle of European origin were 80 cows that 10,000 years ago moved from modern day Turkey into what is now Bulgaria across a “land bridge” that then existed between the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara, where Istanbul now stands. Once again, our ability to isolate DNA from remains of animals and people many thousands of years old has led to fascinating new insights into our past and into ourselves.

  9. “”according to the USDA, 97% of dairy calves are permanently removed from
    their mothers within 24 hours of birth; the rest are taken away in the
    first few days”” ..i am happy not to drink milk or use dairy products, my choice and i am proud of it.