Guide to Dairy-Free Eating

It's easy to quit dairy. Here's how!
Last Updated: July 11, 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 found that their chronic congestion, digestive problems, ear infections, or acne vanished 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. Having said that, it’s important for everyone—meat eaters, ovo-lacto vegetarians, and vegans alike—to read up on nutrition to ensure the diet they follow isn’t deficient in any nutrients.

Nutritionally speaking, dairy is bad news everywhere you look. Almost half of the calories in whole milk come from fat, and nearly all of its carbohydrates come from sugar—all of it in the form of lactose, which many people can’t properly digest. 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.

On the ethical side, many dairy cows are never allowed to graze outdoors; they are confined to cramped stalls on factory farms. Although a cow can live twenty years, practically all dairy cows are slaughtered before they turn five, as the milk production of aging cows can’t match that of younger animals. Modern dairy cows are impregnated each year in order to maximize their milk yields, and their calves are generally taken away from them at just two days of age. Many times, they are kept in crates and slaughtered for veal. So if you oppose veal crates and the killing of young calves for food, you should know that buying dairy products helps to keep the veal industry afloat. 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 about the dairy products you currently consume: chances are that there are one or two such foods you love, but a dozen others you eat regularly that you’re not crazy about. 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! But the real key to success in 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. They’re sold both in aseptic juice boxes stored at room temperature, and in conventional milk cartons in the refrigerated dairy case. Note that “coconut milk” may refer to a pour-it-on-your-cereal milk alternative that’s similar to soy milk, or it may refer to canned coconut milk which is a much thicker and fattier product that’s perfect for Thai curries.
  • 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 product doesn’t label itself as vegan, always check the ingredients for casein or sodium caseinate—these are proteins derived from milk that are used in some soy cheeses.
  • 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, which 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 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, and since a vegan diet excludes all animal products every vegan cookbook is by definition dairy-free.

I recommend starting with a cookbook offering a diverse assortment of easy recipes that can be prepared in minutes. 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.

There are entire books devoted solely to vegan baking. 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, you’ll probably be surprised by how easy it is. 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.