The consumption of dairy foods in certain individuals has long been associated with different health conditions such as anemia, increased mucous production, picky eating behaviors in children, food addiction, allergic rhinitis, asthma, triggering type 1 diabetes (in genetically susceptible individuals), exacerbating arthritis, spiking insulin, and cyclic vomiting or chronic nausea after eating. Going on a dairy-free diet can greatly reduce or eliminate symptoms all together and increase your quality of life.

Food Group

What is a Dairy-Free Diet?

A dairy-free diet removes dairy products from all animal milks. This includes, butter, cheese, milk, cream, ice cream, yogurt, sour cream, kefir, cream cheese, ricotta, cottage cheese, whey protein, and products containing casein (a milk protein). Cow's milk can be replaced with nut milks, oat milk, or coconut milk. Ice cream can be replaced with coconut milk ice cream or cashew-based ice creams, ricotta can be replaced with an almond-based vegan ricotta, yogurt can be replaced with a nut milk yogurt or coconut-based yogurt. Olive oil, avocado oil, coconut oil, or vegetable shortening can replace butter in recipes, depending on the recipe. 

Some individuals react to the lactose in milk products, while others react to the milk proteins in dairy, and some react to both. The reactions to these components of dairy are two separate things. If lactose is an issue then going on a lactose-free diet (which is not a complete elimination of dairy) will resolve the health issues. However, if milk proteins are behind your symptoms, then a complete elimination of dairy is necessary to resolve symptoms. 

Milk Sugar (Lactose):

There are a few different components in dairy products that can cause symptoms and irritation in certain individuals. Lactose (milk sugar) in non-fermented dairy products can cause bloating, cramping, abdominal pain, vomiting, and loose stools in those with a lactose intolerance. An enzyme called lactase is needed to breakdown lactose in the human gut. Approximately 60 to 75% of people do not produce enough lactase to properly digest lactose, therefore, these individuals often deal with daily symptoms of lactose intolerance to varying degrees. Fermentation greatly reduces the lactose content of foods; the longer the fermentation, the less lactose. Beneficial microorganisms consume lactose and produce acids during the fermentation process. This is how you get tart and tangy yogurt! Please note: Some types of dairy that rely on a short fermentation process may still contain too much lactose for certain individuals. 

Milk Proteins (Casein, Whey):

There are at least 30 antigenic proteins in milk. Casein is the most commonly used milk protein in the food industry; whey proteins (lactalbumin, lactoglobulin, bovine albumin, and gamma globulin) are other proteins within milk. Milk proteins are listed on food labels with a variety of names such as milk solids, skim milk powder, casein, caseinates, whey, and albumin. When milk antigens get through the gut mucosa intact, they may be responsible for a host of delayed immune responses that do not depend on the standard antibodies that people associate with allergies called IgE antibodies. These delayed immune responses depend on other types of antibodies named IgA, IgG, IgD, and IgM antibodies, and do not show up on standard allergy skin prick tests that are designed to pick up IgE related reactions.

The proteins in milk can be very sedative and addictive. This is a natural phenomenon seen in infant mammals in order to be addicted to mother's milk and grow. Milk also has a buffer called calcium that helps to reduce stomach acid so large proteins, called immunoglobulins, get passed undigested from the mother to the infant. Because of this, animal milk can be very addicting and allergenic for humans as the casein and whey proteins can make it into the bloodstream intact where the immune system then launches a response against this "invader." Children who are addicted to cow's milk products often are very picky eaters, have a pasty pale skin, may experience vomiting and nausea after eating, and constantly crave dairy. 

Casein proteins in milk comprise about 82% of the total protein content. Casein is concentrated during cheese making (likely why cheese is one of the most addictive foods), and when an individual develops and immune response to casein proteins, this can lead to nutrient malabsorption, failure to thrive in children, vomiting, pain and joint pain in the body, wheezing, and autoimmunity. Interestingly, different breeds of cows produce different types of milk that can create more or less allergic reactions. Beta-caseins differ among A1 and A2 types of cows. A single nucleotide polymorphism exists in this protein that creates a large difference in how these two types of milks are digested in humans. Digestion of A1-type milk leads to the generation of beta-casomorphin 7 (BCM7), a strong opiate. Whereas A2 milk is more easily digested and does not lead to the generation of BCM7. The BCM7 protein has also been associated with increased mucous production in both the respiratory and digestive systems, which may worsen asthma and lead to decreased nutrient absorption in the gut. Jersey, Guernsey, and Brown Swiss cows are example of breeds who produce A2-type milk. Goat milk and goat milk products are also exclusively A2-type casein.

Whey proteins comprise about 18% of the total protein content in milk. Whey protein can cause an allergic reaction in some individuals. This may manifest as hives, wheezing, atopic dermatitis, allergic rhinitis, vomiting, shortness of breath, tongue or throat swelling, or anaphylaxis. Whey is a by-product of cheese and yogurt making. For those individuals who are not allergic to whey, there can be benefits to including this milk product in the diet, including immune enhancement, prebiotic properties and balancing the microbiome, satiety (feeling well-fed, reducing hunger signals), and anti-cancer properties. 

If you are experiencing these symptoms or conditions, then a dairy-free diet may be right for you:

  • Abdominal Pain and Bloating
  • Anemia
  • Acid Reflux
  • Asthma
  • Atopic Dermatitis
  • Eczema 
  • Hives
  • Chronic Rhinitis
  • Sinus Pain
  • Chronic Ear Infections
  • Chronic Vomiting After Eating
  • Gastrointestinal Bleeding
  • IBD
  • Constipation / Loose Stools
  • Nausea
  • Multiple Food Sensitivities 
  • Chronic Headaches / Migraines
  • Add/ADHD
  • Autism
  • Type 1 Diabetes
  • Chronic Joint pain / Arthritis
  • Depression and Mood Swings
  • Currently fighting Cancer 

What can I eat on a Dairy-Free Diet?

Focus on whole, unprocessed foods as the foundation for your meals. Focus on a balance of meats, fish, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds, and fresh fruits. If you are concerned about calcium intake on a dairy-free diet, then focus on consuming calcium-rich plant foods that contain calcium in an easily absorbable form. Kale, collard greens, almonds (try homemade raw almond milk), soaked and cooked dry beans, and even calcium-fortified orange juice are all excellent sources of calcium. Populations that consume high amounts of plant foods and lower amounts of dairy foods have less incidence of osteoporosis than populations who consume high amounts of dairy and other animal foods. Isolating calcium as the sole driver in diseases like osteoporosis seems counterproductive, when in reality, disease happens because of a multitude of factors. Populations with the lowest incidence of osteoporosis also have some of the highest intakes of potassium! Focus on anti-inflammatory foods, balancing your gut microbiome, vitamin D consumption/supplementation, potassium intake from foods (not supplements), and calcium-rich plant foods if you are concerned about bone health (bone growth in children or bone disease in older adults) on a dairy-free diet. 

Stock your kitchen with these dairy-free ingredients:

  • dark leafy greens 
  • raw almonds
  • raw cashews (to make dairy-free cashew creamer)
  • almond milk
  • calcium-fortified orange juice
  • dry beans (to soak and cook)
  • chia seeds
  • canned coconut milk

How do I start a Dairy-Free Diet? 

  1. Sign up today to become a member to this site. 
  2. When setting up your User Profile, choose Dairy-Free, and then add any other food allergens you may have.
  3. Go to the Recipe Search page and search for meals and desserts to add to your meal plans.
  4. New dairy-free recipes are added weekly to this site so you'll always have something to look forward to. Join our Nourishing Meals Community Facebook Group to get notified with new recipes and more! Everyone is welcome.