Chances are, you or someone you love has jumped onto the dairy-free bandwagon—not necessarily because of an intolerance or an allergy but because of the diet’s potential benefits, from clearer skin and a clearer head to a calmer tummy (to say nothing of its pluses for the environment).
But as splendid as it may sound, switching to a dairy-free diet may be daunting to many, particularly to those who not only crave ice cream on a regular basis but who also rely on dairy for good old-fashioned nourishment.
And yet, giving up your favorite foods—Havarti and pizza among them—needn’t be cause for worry or remorse: These days, we have a cornucopia of dairy-free foods from which to choose, many of them just as satisfying as the cow-milk original.
Here’s how to get started on a dairy-free diet in general—and the reasons why you should consider it:
Keep an eye on ingredients
We may start our day determined to forgo that afternoon cappuccino, or opt for a salad over enchiladas when going out for Mexican food with our friends.
But the lactose found in dairy might be the cause behind your bloating and cramping—after all, the inability to digest the sugar in milk and other dairy products impacts 65 percent of the entire human population.
In other words? To go dairy-free—and to feel the extent of its potential benefits—requires a certain vigilance. That salad, for example, might come with a heaping scoop of dairy-full sour cream, as well as a generous sprinkling of shredded cheese.
Look beyond the obvious culprits (like that creamy cappuccino) and keep in mind that dairy is also found in baked goods (such as muffins, cookies and pancakes), fried foods (“buttermilk” fried chicken is a good clue), salad dressings, cereal and cereal bars, crackers (which are often made with butter), sausage and deli meats—even vegetarian meat products, which frequently depend on dairy to add flavor and protein. Training yourself to read or inquire about a food’s ingredients will help ensure that you’re giving your body a genuine break from dairy.
Learn to love non-cow’s milk
One of the biggest fears for those thinking of going dairy-free? The possibility of—gasp!—giving up their beloved coffee with milk or cream.
But walk into any Starbucks or coffee house today and you’re bound to be presented with a number of nondairy alternatives, from almond milk and coconut milk to hemp and cashew.
The trick, however, is finding the type of creamer (which also work brilliantly in smoothies, shakes and cereals) that tastes good to you. For many, coconut milk is even more delectable than cow’s; for others, the subtle nuttiness of almond milk delights and gratifies. Once you’ve discovered your niche (so to speak), give it a go when you’re craving a creamy dessert. (Coconut “ice cream” has grown exponentially in popularity for a reason.)
Swap out the usual suspects for nondairy, plant-based substitutes
Accustomed to eating your turkey sandwich with a slice of cheese? Try a scoop of hummus instead. The Middle Eastern dip not only has a velvety texture, but it’s also jam-packed with protein and fiber (surefire nutrients that may keep your blood sugar level and your energy soaring).
Tend to dip your celery sticks in ranch? Spread a thin layer of peanut, almond or cashew butter on them instead—you’ll get a higher dose of protein and some brain-boosting omega -s while you’re at it.
Additionally, cook with olive oil or coconut oil instead of butter, and replace butter and milk in baking recipes with bananas, applesauce, silken tofu or ripe avocado. And if you’re still stuck in deciding what to eat at the taqueria, consider salsa and guacamole (just be sure to ask your server if the guac is made without sour cream!).
Boost your calcium intake cleanly
Proponents of dairy products frequently cite its richness in calcium as one of the key reasons to keep reaching for the cheese. And while it’s true that dairy products contain this essential, bone-building mineral, it’s not the only source available. Dried figs, salmon, sesame, almonds, tofu, sardines, lentils, fortified orange juice, broccoli and Bok choy—all are excellent choices.
And if kale is often on your grocery list, pat yourself on the back (or, like almond milk, learn to love it): “Two cups of raw kale packs 201 mg of calcium, and it’s even more bioavailable than the calcium in milk,” says department head of nutrition science at Purdue University, Connie M. Weaver, PhD. (To ensure you’re getting adequate amounts of this vital nutrient, you might also want to consider taking a calcium supplement.)
And should you mourn the thought of giving up fettuccini alfredo and mochas with whipped cream, think of what you might have to gain instead—from goodbye, adult acne (“Hormones in milk increase the level of androgens in your body, and that triggers the production of oils that clog pores,” says Frederic Brandt) to boatloads of energy. Does anything taste more delicious?