Going Dairy-Free For Beginners (Complete Guide)

by Alena
Jan 15, 2020
Woman with rings and bracelets holding glass with iced coffee with plant-based milk

Do you struggle with indigestion, skin issues or chronic disease? Going dairy-free might be something worth trying to reclaim your health and lower your environmental footprint at the same time.

You’ve probably noticed the recent trend of dairy-free recipes and wondered if this dietary choice can lead to better health or even weight loss.

Granted, dairy is in the overwhelming majority of foods you can buy at the grocery store, so why would you take it upon yourself to make this change?

Making the switch to a more plant-based diet, perhaps transitioning from a vegetarian diet to a vegan diet, actually comes with a whole host of wonderful benefits and is one of the quickest ways to contribute to saving the environment.

In this article, you will find out what the side effects of going dairy-free are, what changes to your body are possible, the sneaky names through which dairy can find its way onto your plate and the best dairy alternatives on the market!

To put all of this information into action, we’ve created a step-by-step transition plan for you towards the end of this article. Not only that, but we’re also giving you a 7-day dairy-free, easy and healthy meal plan to download – all yours and totally free!

But first things first – why consider going dairy-free?

Top Dairy-Free Benefits

There are good reasons why you should try a dairy-free diet! No matter if you want to resolve some health issues, deal with chronic disease, lose weight, lower your environmental footprint or if you are simply concerned about the ethical issues surrounding dairy production and what it means for the animals, here are the top dairy-free benefits in a nutshell.

Please note that the following health benefits are related to skipping dairy products, but there’s no guarantee that everyone will experience all of these benefits.

Digestion

Better digestion for those struggling with lactose intolerance, which can cause gas, bloating, constipation, diarrhea and nausea; about 70% of the world’s population has some degree of lactose intolerance, and it’s especially common in people of Asian or African descent. 

Allergies

Preventing milk allergies and sensitivities, which can cause things like nasal congestion, digestive issues, hives or even life-threatening anaphylaxis; these allergies can appear at any time of life but are very common in young children.

Weight Loss

Easier weight loss due to an overall lower calorie density of your diet as well as a lower saturated fat content; studies have shown that people on a completely vegan diet are the only group that consistently average a healthy BMI. This means that for the best results, you should replace meat, fish and eggs in your diet, too.

Cravings

Fewer food cravings. Not only is cheese a real fat and salt bomb (both of which can drive cravings), but it’s also mildly addictive due to naturally occurring morphine-like substances that can lead to overconsumption.

Insulin Levels

Better insulin levels since dairy products contain an insulin-like growth factor that can worsen diabetes, PCOS and other metabolic disorders.

Vascular Health

Lower chance for heart disease and stroke because dairy foods are the number one source of saturated fat in the Western diet, which contributes to high cholesterol levels and cardiovascular disease.

Cancer

Lower risk of some types of cancer (especially prostate) that are promoted when consuming too much dairy.

Hormone Levels

Healthier hormone levels because you’re not consuming mammalian estrogen and progesterone from cows or sheep, especially if you increase your fiber content at the same time.

Nutrient Absorption

Better absorption of some nutrients which can be blocked by dairy.

Closeup of smiling woman with brown hair

Skin

Better skin and less acne because dairy contains natural hormones as well as a form of sugar and is pro-inflammatory, all of which can work against you and your skin.

Food Safety

Reduced exposure to added antibiotics, added hormones as well as pesticides (that accumulate in the feed), which is common practice at all conventional dairy farms. Animal products are also more likely to be contaminated with PCBs or dioxins and go bad more quickly.

Animal Welfare

Less animal suffering since dairy milk is arguably more unethical than meat due to the constant impregnation of the mother cow. When the mother cow finally does give birth, her child is immediately taken away from her, just so we can take her milk.

Cows often end up with physical maladies like mastitis or become too weak to walk – once they are “spent,” they are sent to the slaughterhouse just like any animal in the meat industry. 

Environment

Reduced negative environmental impacts that occur in dairy farming, such as high water usage for cows and their feed, the production of manure, ammonia and methane, deforestation or ocean dead zones.

Time to Get Motivated

Although we ended on a pretty serious note there, you can take these benefits of going-dairy free as a motivator to start taking action and change your diet!

Switching from an omnivorous or vegetarian diet to a fully vegan one offers a slew of advantages, which you’ll soon recognize and help you stay on track.

If taking the step to go dairy-free overnight seems a bit daunting now, we’ve got you covered – just keep on reading to find out how to easily make the transition.

Vegetarian & Vegan Transition Guides

Why Is It so Hard to Go Dairy-Free?

As with any change in our lives, we need to have a strong internal reason for both questioning what we’re doing and then going against our habits.

This relates to both picking up new habits and breaking old ones, such as quitting smoking, going to the gym regularly, keeping our workspace decluttered or changing our diet.

You grew up eating dairy pretty much every day of your life – you’re accustomed to the taste and texture, and it brings up so many childhood memories!

Plus, it’s just much more convenient to not have any dietary restrictions at all if you’re eating out or meeting with friends.

What’s more, as we mentioned above, dairy naturally contains casomorphines, a mild form of morphine that was put there by mother nature to form the strong bond between the calf and the mother cow so that the baby keeps coming back for more.

You might have guessed it – that’s why dairy (especially cheese) is so hard to give up for many people. It’s also what keeps vegetarians from going vegan, even though they are aware of the ethical reasons for a fully plant-based diet.

Vegetarian vs. Vegan Diet

Dairy products are often high in fat and calories (we’re talking cheese, cream and butter here especially) which makes them incredibly calorie-dense – and, due to evolution, our brains love to get as many calories per bite as possible.

Add to that the natural sugars occurring in dairy plus the added sugar that often appears in foods like yogurt or cheesecake as well as the high amount of salt in cheese and you have the perfect recipe for neverending cravings!

Stop Food Cravings (Guide + Download)
Woman pouring homemade cashew milk from bottle into a glass

Are There Any Side Effects of Going Dairy-Free?

Well, you need to be looking for dairy alternatives if you want to go dairy-free. Simply no longer consuming any dairy can cause you to involuntarily undereat on calories, calcium or protein. 

You can find out how to replace the nutrients in dairy towards the end of this article.

No need to go out and buy all of the vegan cheese and cream you can, though! These foods are great for culinary pleasure, no doubt, but they are not necessary to have on a dairy-free diet.

Grocery shopping might be a bit more time-consuming in the beginning since you need to check the labels on any processed food to see if it contains any form of dairy (find a detailed list of ingredients to look out for below).

Once you know what products to shop for that don’t contain any dairy, we can promise that you won’t need to spend any extra time at the store.

Eating out on a dairy-free diet is a bit more complicated, too – as is the case with any dietary restriction. There are some easy tweaks like ordering pizza without the cheese or going to Asian restaurants (which rarely use any dairy products to begin with) and you’ll get the hang of it soon.

Easy Dairy-Free Pizza Rolls

What to Avoid When Going Dairy-Free

You’d think that eating no dairy should be pretty easy – just swap the cow’s milk for oat milk, butter for margarine and omit the cheese.

Ha! The dairy industry loves to put dairy and its by-products into anything from tomato sauces to vinaigrettes, cereals or breakfast bars.

And dairy can have many names, too! Besides the obvious milk, butter or cheese on the label, here are some sneaky ways dairy can end up in your cart.

List of Dairy Ingredients

  • Lactose, Lactoferrin, Lactoglobulin, Lactulose
  • Whey Protein, Whey Powder
  • Casein or Caseinate
  • Custard
  • Ghee
  • Half & Half
  • Rennet Casein
  • Paneer
  • Pudding
  • Galactose (can also be derived from plants)

There are also many ingredients that can potentially be derived from dairy; conversely, there are some ingredients that sound like dairy products (e.g. lactic acid) that actually have no dairy whatsoever. 

For a full list of which ingredients to look out for, we highly recommend this article by Go Dairy Free.

Is Vegan Dairy-Free?

Yes, vegan products are always dairy-free as per definition since vegans don’t consume any animal products, including dairy.

Certain ingredients, such as the aforementioned “lactic acid,” can be found in vegan, dairy-free products because, despite its name, this ingredient is most often derived from plants and not mammalian milk. 

In general, someone eating a dairy-free diet isn’t necessarily vegan, though – there are many people who have milk allergies or are lactose intolerant.

Some popular diets like the paleo diet also discourage the consumption of dairy products.

Living dairy-free is just one part of a vegan diet (which abstains from all animal products, including meat, fish, dairy, eggs, honey and gelatine), and vegan diets are only a portion of a vegan lifestyle.

According to The Vegan Society, veganism is

“a lifestyle which seeks to exclude, as far as is possible and practicable, all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose.”

Woman with black pullover holding jar of milk with straw

How To Replace Dairy

Now, let’s get to the fun part! We hope you haven’t been discouraged to try going dairy-free by the list of names that dairy can have. If you just follow the vegan food label, you can make your life a lot easier – and over time, you’ll know exactly which foods are dairy-free anyway.

Going dairy-free allows you to branch out and try a lot of new and delicious foods you probably wouldn’t have had on the radar if you just kept eating dairy!

Let’s check out all the different options and replacements.

Dairy-Free Milk

This will probably be the easiest swap! Plant-based milk alternatives have become super popular over the last few years and you are in no way just stuck with soy.

Although this healthy legume (which has been unfairly demonized and is actually really good for us) comes closest to dairy milk in terms of its nutritional profile, some people just dislike the taste.

Is Soy Bad For You?

You could try vanilla or chocolate soy milk if you like, or simply opt for another plant-based variety.

There’s milk made from almonds, rice, oats, hemp, cashews, macadamia, peas, coconut and more! Each has its unique taste and works for different uses.

We love barista editions in our coffee (especially Oatly), coconut milk in our Asian stir-fries and cashew milk in our oatmeal. Just try different dairy-free milks to find your favorite!

Another cool idea is to make your own plant-based milk alternatives at home. You can just blend some soaked almonds or oats with water and then strain it for a very easy version, or you can even get a soy milk maker!

Homemade Almond Milk Latte

Dairy-Free Yogurt

The next most common dairy alternative at the store is probably yogurt. Often made with soy, almonds or coconuts, you can opt for unsweetened, plain varieties or go for vanilla, berries or lots of other flavors.

In our kitchen, we also replace sour cream and cream cheese with plain soy yogurt. Common brands at the store include So Delicious, Kite Hill, Alpro, Silk, Almond Dream and Sojade.

Again, try different ones or even make your own yogurt with non-dairy probiotics at home, which is surprisingly easy! Here’s a simple recipe for almond yogurt.

Dairy-Free Cheese

Store-bought dairy-free cheese can be a hit or miss. Don’t go out expecting to find something that exactly replicates cow’s milk cheese, but rather look for something that tastes nice and can be used in a similar way.

Common brands are Kite Hill, Tofutti, Simply V, Follow Your Heart, Miyoko and Daiya (depending on your location). These vegan cheeses are made with vegetable oils or nuts and come in all shapes and sizes, from cream cheese to shredded cheese, sliceable cheese or parmesan.

We sometimes prefer to make our own cheese at home by blending cashews with nutritional yeast for a quick and healthy vegan parmesan or make a delicious creamy cheese sauce from either nuts, beans or even veggies!

Easy Vegan Mac and Cheese Recipe

If you’re looking to replace cream cheese on bread, there are other sandwich toppings you can try such as avocado toast (yummy!) or hummus.

Dairy-Free Butter

Vegan butters have come a long way. Not only do they resemble the taste of dairy-based butter, but they have also gotten a lot healthier!

Free from unhealthy trans fats and sometimes even featuring nuts, dairy-free butter is really worth a try! Two very popular choices are Miyoko’s Cultured Vegan Butter and Earth Balance.

Many margarines are also dairy-free and can be easier to find, so just check the labels.

Woman holding hands around dish with homemade vegan chocolate ice cream
Go to this Chocolate Ice Cream Recipe

Dairy-Free Ice Cream

No need to add dairy to any ice cream! Find super creamy and tasty ice cream made with coconut, almond, soy or many other plant-based foods.

You can even find fancy ice cream sandwiches, vegan chocolate-covered ice cream bars or cookie dough varieties from brands like So Delicious, Tofutti, Ben & Jerry’s or Häagen-Dazs.

Plus, most sorbets are already vegan and dairy-free!

Another easy and healthy way to have dairy-free ice cream is to simply make it at home. You can just blend your favorite frozen fruit into a sorbet or combine it with coconut cream, cocoa powder and all the delicious add-ins you can think of! 

The Best Kitchen Tools (Full List)

The Best Dairy-Free Recipes

Are you eager to try some dairy-free recipes? Perfect! We’ve curated a list of the best easy recipes for beginners on a dairy-free or plant-based diet.

But don’t think that you need to get super extravagant here – there are many dishes that require neither dairy nor dairy replacements from the get-go. 

In our following list of delicious dairy-free recipes to try, we included both some of these traditionally dairy-free meals as well as a few that feature some creamy and cheesy components that make waving goodbye to dairy a lot easier.

Savory Dairy-Free Meals

Dairy-Free Desserts

Nutritional Considerations When Going Dairy-Free

Just choosing plant-based dairy-free foods doesn’t mean that your diet will automatically be healthy. For example, if you decide to go dairy-free for health reasons, you might not want to stock up on coconut oil-based vegan cheeses or sugar-rich coconut ice creams.

These foods are both delicious and ethical, yes. If your main reason for eating a dairy-free diet is your dairy intolerance or following a vegan lifestyle, you will probably feel better choosing these alternatives, and we’ll still totally root for you!

At the same time, it’s almost always better to choose whole foods instead of processed foods, so why not jumpstart your dairy-free journey by overhauling your whole diet a little bit to get even more health benefits?

Everyone, no matter their diet, needs to make sure what they eat covers all of their nutritional needs. Just because you don’t consciously leave any specific food off the table, that doesn’t mean that you automatically get all of the fiber, essential fatty acids, iron and calcium that you need.

In fact, many meat-eaters have more deficiencies than those choosing a plant-based diet because people who decide to omit certain foods oftentimes plan their diets more consciously.

To help you eat a well-rounded dairy-free diet, here’s how to meet some of the more critical nutrients!

Dairy-Free Calcium

This is probably the first nutrient that comes to mind – calcium is important for everyone, no matter their diet, to have healthy teeth, bones, muscle and nerve function.

When replacing dairy, you should start increasing calcium-rich plant-based foods and also make sure that you have adequate Vitamin D levels for proper calcium absorption. Tip: soy products and plant-based milks are often fortified with calcium!

Foods that contain high amounts of calcium:

  • Vegetables: Rhubarb Stalks, Collard Greens, Spinach, Kale, Broccoli
  • Fruit: Navel Oranges
  • Legumes: Calcium Fortified Soy Milk, Calcium Set Tofu, White Beans
  • Nuts & Seeds: Almonds, Tahini
  • Other: Molasses
Various vegan plant based milk and ingredients on beige background

Vitamin D on a Dairy-Free Diet

Did you know that dairy milk is often fortified with vitamin D and doesn’t contain it naturally? This is why when you go dairy-free, you need to take care of this supplementation yourself.

Getting moderate amounts of sunshine is one way to have your body produce vitamin D (which is actually a hormone), and some plant-based milks, juices or cereals are fortified with vitamin D.

It’s recommended that everyone, dairy-free or not, take a vitamin D supplement at least during the winter months.

Plant-Based Protein

Yes, dairy milk is a rich source of protein, but since food always comes as a package, you don’t just get the benefits but also the risks of each food. Plant-based protein has been associated with lower chronic disease as well as longevity and a ton of other health benefits!

High-protein vegan foods:

  • Grains: Seitan, Amaranth, Quinoa, Whole Wheat Spaghetti
  • Legumes: Tempeh, Peanuts, Tofu, Soy Milk, Lentils, Beans
  • Nuts & Seeds: Pumpkin Seeds, Almonds
Plant-Based Protein Guide

Dairy-Free Iodine

This lesser-known mineral is found in dairy products mainly due to supplementation of cattle feed and the iodine-containing disinfectant used to sterilize milking equipment, which is also added to teat dips and udder washes. 

Iodine exists in some sea vegetables, but the amount varies widely and you neither want to under- nor overconsume them. Depending on the soil quality in which your food is grown, vegetables such as potatoes can be a decent source of iodine. 

There’s also iodized salt that can ensure you get a fair amount each day – or just go straight to a daily supplement with 150 mcg of iodine.

Full Plant-Based Nutrient Guide + Download

Going Dairy-Free For Beginners

Let’s put everything into action! There are some easy and powerful steps you can take towards a dairy-free diet, so we wanted to break it down and make the transition as fun as possible for beginners.

Woman standing close to an open window, holding bowl with various fresh vegan components

7-Day Dairy-Free Diet Plan

Make things easier for you and let us do the planning!

You can grab your free 7-day easy and healthy dairy-free meal plan that offers you a different colorful, delicious and nutrient-packed bowl recipe every day.

We’ve included nutritional information, leftover lunches, an exact shopping list for the week, our top vegan transition tips, a “stock your pantry” list and a Sunday meal prep guide.

3D mockup with white ipad showing Nutriciously's Week of Bowls 7-Day Meal Plan

Do you think going dairy-free is possible for you and could improve your life? Which foods are hardest for you to let go or replace, and what tips can you share with us? Feel free to comment below and Pin this resource for later.

Alena enjoying a bowl of fresh plant-based food and coffe in a restaurant
Alena Schowalter is a Certified Vegan Nutritionist (CPD) who has been a vegetarian since childhood and vegan since 2012. Together with her husband, she founded nutriciously in 2015 and has been guiding thousands of people through different transition stages towards a healthy plant-based diet. She’s received training in the fields of nutrition, music therapy and social work. Alena enjoys discussions around vegan ethics, walks through nature and creating new recipes.
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