The Truth About Dairy. Should You Go Dairy Free?

5 min read

Everyday we are seeing new vegan and dairy-free options available, as well as seeing plenty of celebrities endorsing extreme, restrictive diets suggesting that dairy should be avoided, so it comes at no surprise that in recent years, many people are led to believe that dairy is a poor food choice and best to be avoided. However, with limited education on dairy, removing dairy products from your diet may even do more harm than good.

Dairy can be an extremely healthy addition to your diet - it is an affordable and convenient way of providing an array of essential nutrients. As well as this, not only do dairy products make a great addition to many meals, they also serve as a very nutritious, high in protein, convenient snack, which can sometimes be difficult to find.

You can ignore what any celebrities and influencers are saying about removing dairy from your diet; however, you may have in fact been advised by a medical professional to remove dairy from your diet. One of the main reasons for not consuming dairy products would be if you had an intolerance to dairy. This could be lactose intolerance, in which case you react to the sugars in the dairy, or it could be casein intolerance, in which case you react to the proteins in dairy. Common symptoms include: bloating, gas, low mood, irritability, low energy, brain fog, nausea or changes to bowel movements.

The main carbohydrate in dairy is lactose, made of the two simple sugars glucose and galactose. The body produces a digestive enzyme called lactase, which is used to digest lactose. However, throughout life some people lose the ability to break down lactose. In this instance, I would advise you to reach out to a registered dietitian or nutritionist for specific personalised advice.

Now let’s take a look at the benefits of dairy and why, if you are okay with tolerating dairy products, they should be incorporated into your diet.

We typically tend to think about calcium when we think of dairy products, which is correct as milk and dairy products provide on average almost a third of our recommended calcium intakes; however, the nutritional benefits go much further than just calcium. Whole milk could almost be referred to as a nutritional powerhouse, as it provides a little of everything we need. It provides protein, fat, carbohydrates, calcium, vitamin A, vitamin B1, B2, B6, B12, vitamin D, potassium, iodine, phosphorus, selenium, zinc and magnesium. To me that is pretty impressive, and should be a reason in itself to consider including milk and dairy products in the diet if you can. Nutrient composition does vary slightly by dairy type. For example, dairy from grass-fed or pasture raised cows contains more fat-soluble vitamins and fatty acids.

So what happens if you can’t consume milk and dairy products? If you choose not to consume dairy products, whether for personal reasons or a medical reason, it is important to ensure you are getting in the nutrients that dairy may have been providing before you removed it from the diet. We just saw above how important milk and dairy products can be in the diet, so by removing this food group you may be removing more nutrients than you think.

We saw that milk and dairy products are one of our main calcium sources in the diet, which we know is vital for bone and teeth health. Additional sources of calcium include dark green leafy vegetables, fish where you eat the bones such as sardines, poppy seeds, chia seeds, almonds, as well as fortified foods such as bread (most flours are fortified) and plant milks.

When looking at bone health, we also need to talk about vitamin D. While calcium helps with building and maintaining bone health, vitamin D helps effectively absorb calcium. Therefore, the two work together. Most plant milks are now fortified with vitamin D, as well as calcium, but our main source of vitamin D is actually the sun. In the UK we are recommended to take a supplement throughout the winter months, but if you know you rarely get full body exposure throughout the rest of the year I advise to continue taking the supplement all year round.

Phosphorus is also important in bone and teeth health. As well as dairy products, it is found naturally in protein rich foods such as meats, poultry, fish, nuts and beans.  

Another mineral worth mentioning is iodine. Alongside fish, milk and dairy products tend to be our main sources in the diet. Therefore, iodine is important to think about if you are removing dairy from the diet. As with calcium, vitamin D and B12, most plant milks are now fortified with iodine so ensure you do find one that is. Other foods include some sea vegetables and iodized salt.

There is a huge range of plant based milks available now including soya, almond, oat, coconut, hemp, hazelnut, cashew, rice, walnuts, as well as lactose free milk. When choosing which to go for, firstly look at the ingredients list. A lot of these milks have sugar added to them to enhance the flavour. This is something to avoid where possible. There are many brands out there that don’t use sugars. The next thing to look at is for fortification. As mentioned above, many brands now fortify their products with nutrients that you will find in traditional dairy milk. This is brilliant. If you can find an alternative with no added sugar, as well as the addition of vitamin B12, vitamin D, calcium and iodine that would be an excellent alternative.

There are plenty of dairy-free cheese options available now; however, most of these tend to be higher in fats and provide little to no protein. Cheese is a good source of protein so bear this in mind when choosing your dairy free alternative.

There are also plenty of dairy free yoghurts available now. Like with dairy yoghurt, choose brands without added sugars where possible. Soya yoghurt is brilliant as it provides a good source of protein like regular yoghurt. Soya yoghurt with a handful of nuts and berries can make a great snack option.

That leads me nicely to highlighting another brilliant benefit of dairy products - they are a very convenient way of adding more protein into your diet. We typically find protein intake is lower at breakfast, so to help boost protein at breakfast I suggest adding natural greek style / skyr yoghurt to your breakfast. It can be added on the side or added into oats, muesli or granola.

To help prevent mid afternoon energy slumps and the desire to reach for the biscuit tin, I highly encourage you to incorporate a high protein snack mid afternoon. Dairy products can be a brilliant addition. Either grab an individual yoghurt pot and add some fresh fruit and a handful of nuts or if you have access to a fridge in the office, keep a large pot of yoghurt in there and you have the pot for the week. That way you can easily add to a bowl with fruit and a handful of nuts to make it a well balanced, nutritious, satiating snack. If you’re more of a savoury fan then a few slices of cheese on corn cakes with sliced tomato or 3 babybels with an apple make a brilliant high protein, nutritious, balanced snack.

In summary, milk and dairy products provide a huge range of nutrients, from protein to calcium and vitamin B12. If you are able to consume milk and dairy products there is no reason to exclude them from your diet. If you are opting for dairy-free alternatives, check the labels and opt for products that are fortified with additional nutrients where possible.