More and more people are reducing dairy or going dairy-free these days. It’s not a fad. It’s also not a diet for weight loss. It’s deciding that your health – and the life that better health allows you to live – is worth more than the momentary yumminess of a lot of cheese, ice cream and milk. For the vast majority of people, reducing or avoiding dairy translates to better health.
Dairy products are derived from milk – in America, this is usually cow’s milk, but it can also be sheep, goat, and so on. In addition to milk, dairy products include ice cream, yogurt, kefir, butter, cream, half and half, cream cheese, cottage cheese, and cheese in general. Dairy is also in most chocolates and some other candies, and it is added to many processed and packaged foods, so check labels and choose products with no dairy (including casein and whey) added. Interestingly, goat and sheep milk products are easier for many people to digest, as they contain enzymes assist in breaking down the milk for digestion.
Milk is produced by a mother for her baby, and is intended by nature to feed a baby in its early development; this is because milk is loaded with nutrients to nourish babies and help them grow and develop. After a few years of age, we as humans are not meant to be consuming milk. The vast majority of us actually lack the enzymes necessary to digest milk – so most people are lactose-intolerant! It is worth noting that there is a subpopulation who do retain the enzymes for milk digestion – this has been found more in people of Nordic descent.
The inability to digest the lactose from cow’s milk and milk products means that it stays in your GI tract for longer, and can cause cramping, bloating, upset stomach and constipation, none of which are great for your body. The longer it sits in your system, the more chance for an immune sensitivity or autoimmune tendency to occur. The sugar from the milk also adds to your body’s overall sugar load, which increases inflammation and cardiovascular risk profile. If you have chronic pain, a constant low-level inflammatory state may compound the issue and increase your pain. In addition, dairy tends to increase mucus production, which can lead to clogged sinuses and nasal congestion.
So, what’s a dairy-loving guy or gal to do? It may be challenging to avoid all dairy products, especially right off the bat. Start slowly reducing the amount of dairy products you consume, and as you do so adding in non-dairy alternatives where you feel the need. For example: if you love having a little milk in your coffee, switch it for coconut or almond milk (Starbucks offers these options as well). Or if you normally snack on cheese, try switching to hummus and carrot sticks or tortilla chips.
Start with one substitution, try it for a week, then modify it if you need to or go ahead and add in another substitution. An easy one to start with is milk for cereal and coffee – switch the usual cow’s milk for unsweetened vanilla almond milk.
Tasty non-dairy alternatives include:
Almond, coconut, hemp, and rice milk
Coconut milk creamer
Soy or coconut milk ice cream
Almond or coconut yogurt
Cashew cheese or butter
Vegan butter and buttery spread (EarthBalance is good)
Sheep’s milk or goat’s milk cheeses may be easier for your digestion
Keep in mind that just because something is labeled “non-dairy” does not mean it is necessarily healthy. Take a look at the label, checking out the sugar content, additives and so on.
Also: Soy. Many non-dairy products are made using soy as a substitute. Try to keep these to a minimum, as soy is a big commercial crop (read: GMOs, pesticides, etc.) and it may be hormone-modulating. Choose a non-dairy option that doesn’t have these questions.
It can be fun to experiment with non-dairy options and see what you like – think of it as a chance to sample lots of different things and find what you like best, and also to switch up your usual eating routine…after all, variety is the spice of life, eh? The point isn’t that the alternative tastes as much like the dairy product as possible; it’s that you like the other option for what it is and choose to nourish your body with most of your food choices.
All of this doesn’t mean that it’s essential to avoid dairy all the time – it’s just about making more conscious decisions for your health. When you eat for your health the majority of the time, you provide for yourself a better quality of life AND you allow yourself to enjoy indulgences, like fresh ice cream, even more.
The information provided here is not intended to replace medical advice or to treat or diagnose any medical condition. Please consult your doctor with specific questions and prior to beginning any significant diet or lifestyle changes.