Dairy-Free Eating Guide: Easy Tips & Helpful Advice

It's easy to quit dairy. Here's how!
Last Updated: August 27, 2018

Why Go Dairy-Free?

Dairy products are deeply problematic on both health and ethical grounds. On the health side, countless people who’ve quit dairy witnessed enormous improvements to their health. Maladies like chronic congestion, digestive problems, ear infections, or acne may vanish within a few weeks. You might therefore consider going dairy-free for a month to see if doing so significantly improves your quality of life.

Nutritionally speaking, dairy is bad news everywhere you look. Nearly all of its carbohydrates come from sugar—all of it in the form of lactose, which many people can’t properly digest. Upwards of 80 percent of people of Asian descent, and 70 percent of people of African descent, have lactose intolerance. Lactose intolerance is common in every part of the world. So if you’ve suffered from chronic digestive problems, it may be that dairy products are to blame.

Almost half of the calories in whole milk come from fat. Worse yet, the fat in dairy products is every bit as saturated as the fat in beef. Dairy also has absolutely no fiber or iron. And if all that were not enough, you might contemplate why the FDA refuses to answer the question about whether there is pus in milk products.

Ethical Considerations

On the ethical side, many dairy cows are never allowed to graze outdoors. They are instead confined to cramped stalls on factory farms. Although a cow can live twenty years, nearly all dairies slaughter their cows before they turn five. Why so young? Because the milk production of aging cows can’t match that of younger animals. So, ethically, the main difference between beef and dairy is that beef comes from slaughtered cattle, while dairy products come from cows who will be slaughtered.

Dairies impregnate their cows annually in order to maximize milk yields. Generally, these calves get taken away at just two days of age. What happens to these calves? The males commonly supply the veal industry. So if you oppose the crating and slaughter of young calves, know that dairy products are what makes the veal industry possible. For detailed information about the dairy industry’s cruel farming practices, see Jonathan Safran Foer’s superb book Eating Animals.

How to Go Dairy-Free

If the idea of rapidly removing all dairy products from your diet seems daunting, you can ease into it. Think for a moment about all the dairy products you currently consume. Chances are that you truly enjoy one or two of these foods, but that you aren’t crazy about the others. If, for example, you regularly consume whole milk, yogurt, ice cream, American cheese slices, butter, and cheese pizza, it might be that yogurt and pizza are the only foods from this list that you’re especially fond of.  So get rid of the others, and you’re immediately more than halfway to being dairy-free! The best approach for eliminating dairy foods involves not cutting them out, but rather crowding them out with superior non-dairy alternatives. And luckily, there are all sorts of non-dairy products on the market that are truly wonderful:

  • Milk: Soy, rice, almond, coconut, and even hemp seed milks are widely available, not just at natural food stores but also at most supermarkets. You can buy vegan milks packaged in conventional milk cartons and sold in the refrigerated dairy case. These products also come packaged in aseptic juice boxes stored at room temperature (which must be refrigerated upon opening). It’s better, cheaper, and more environmentally friendly to buy refrigerated soy milk. Note that “coconut milk” may refer to a pour-it-on-your-cereal milk alternative that’s similar to soy milk. But it may also refer to canned coconut milk—a much thicker and fattier product ideal for Thai curries. When cooking recipes, it’s important not to confuse the two!
  • Yogurt: Silk’s Peach & Mango soy yogurt is sensational, and may be the best vegan yogurt on the market. Other brands of soy or coconut-based yogurts include So Delicious, Trader Joe’s and Nancy’s.
  • Cheese: The number of vegan cheeses on the market has soared in recent years,and we list all the top brands on our vegan cheese page. If the label does not say vegan, be sure check the ingredients for casein or sodium caseinate. Some soy cheeses contain these milk-based proteins.
  • Butter: Vegan butters have come a long way. Several brands offer wonderful flavor and are free of dangerous trans fats. Miyoko’s Cultured Vegan Butter is made from organic ingredients, and favorably compares in flavor to butter made from cows’ milk. And Earth Balance is an excellent mass-market product that is carried in most supermarkets. Neither of these products contains dangerous artificial trans fats. If you want to embark on a challenging but rewarding cooking project, you can also make superb vegan butter in your kitchen by following this recipe.
  • Ice Cream: There are a number of excellent brands. Ice cream giants Ben & Jerry’s and Häagen-Dazs both sell vegan pints, and Häagen-Dazs also offers two varieties of vegan chocolate covered bars on a stick. Turtle Mountain’s “Purely Decadent” pints are outstanding, and conventional ice cream producer Double Rainbow makes several excellent varieties from soy milk. Also, both So Delicious and Tofutti make vegan versions of those junky but delicious ice cream sandwiches you ate as a kid—you won’t even be able to tell the difference! Plus don’t forget about sorbets, which tend to be vegan and are lighter and often more flavorful than ice cream. If you love the flavor of coconuts, you owe it to yourself to try Luna and Larry’s Coconut Bliss.
  • Cream Cheese, Sour Cream, and Mayo: Once again, you’re in luck. Follow Your Heart, Daiya and Tofutti make superb vegan versions of cream cheese. These brands are available at Whole Foods Market and Trader Joe’s, as well as many natural food stores.  Follow Your Heart and Tofutti also make vegan sour cream. There are also several vegan brands of mayonnaise, the most popular of which is Just Mayo by Hampton Creek, which is carried by Walmart, Costco, and natural food groceries nationwide.
  • Coffee Creamer: There’s no need to put cream in your coffee: both So Delicious and Silk make vegan creamers that blend perfectly into coffee.
  • Pudding. Bestselling cookbook author Mark Bittman concocted perhaps the best chocolate pudding recipe you’ll ever try, and it doesn’t contain a drop of milk. ZenSoy makes refrigerated vegan pudding cups made from soy milk and almond milk.

Dairy-Free Nutrition

It’s important for everyone—meat eaters, ovo-lacto vegetarians, and vegans alike—to read up on nutrition to ensure their diet isn’t deficient in any nutrients.

If you’ve decided to go dairy-free, two nutrients in particular deserve your attention: calcium and vitamin D. Only a handful of foods that compare favorably to dairy in terms of calcium. But these foods are delicious and quite healthful. They include:

  • some leafy greens
  • some beans
  • calcium fortified soy milk
  • calcium-set tofu

For some people, a calcium supplement may be advisable. To learn more, check our calcium overview. Our Vegan Nutrition Guide is also well worth your time.

As for Vitamin D, in most countries dairy products are indeed a rich source but that’s only because the government requires its addition. If you consume a lot of milk products, it may be that most of your vitamin D comes from dairy. If that’s the case, it’s probably wise to take a daily vitamin D supplement should you decide to go dairy-free.

Dairy-Free Cookbooks

The easiest way to find a dairy-free cookbook is to choose one with vegan in its title. There are hundreds of vegan cookbooks available covering every sort of food and cuisine you could possibly imagine. Since a vegan diet excludes all animal products every vegan cookbook is by definition dairy-free.

Start with a cookbook offering a diverse assortment of easy recipes that take just a few minutes to prepare. Two excellent choices are Robin Robertson’s Quick-Fix Vegan or Mary Mattern’s Nom Yourself.  If you want to make meals and desserts that are a little more upscale, check out titles like Happy Healthy Vegan Kitchen or Eaternity.

If baking is your thing, you’ll have no trouble finding dairy-free baking cookbooks. Two comprehensive titles are The 100 Best Vegan Baking Recipes and Whole Grain Vegan Baking. If sweets are your thing, be sure to check out Chloe’s Vegan Desserts. Vegan Cupcakes Take Over the World, and Vegan Cookies Invade Your Cookie Jar.

Whether you want to reduce your dairy consumption or cut it out entirely, it’s easier than you might imagine. So why not make a commitment to try out a dairy-free lifestyle for a month?  If you do, you may find the benefits so compelling that you’ll never go back. If this guide has been helpful to you, and you would access to a steady stream of related information, check out our weekly eNewsletter.