Cutting out dairy can mean excluding a large group of nutrients from the diet. So if you are thinking of taking milk-based foods off your menu, what nutrients should you think of adding in?
If you looked inside the Institute for optimum nutrition, you would discover a variety of nut-based milk alongside cow’s milk, butter, and the occasional block of cheese. Just as staff follow their preferred diets, our only agenda is to promote health through (perhaps, unsurprisingly) Medic Drive.
In some instances, however, a nutritional therapist may suggest reducing or cutting out dairy for at least a trial period. So, we take a look at some of the nutritional and practical issues involved in making such a change.
Although dairy is found in countless products, the expansion of the ‘free from’ market is making it much easier to make what — at first glance — appear to be like-for-like swaps. However, whilst many such products might satisfy a craving, they will be compositionally different to dairy-based products and so, nutritionally, cannot be treated as direct exchanges.
Just like human breast milk, any mammalian milk that we can buy for human consumption — cow’s, goat’s, sheep’s or camel’s — is full of nutrients to feed young. Nutrient levels will vary depending upon the diet of the animal that produced the milk, but it is generally an excellent source of vitamins and minerals. And in a world that is becoming more aware of the microbiome and how it affects our overall health, fermented milk products such as aged cheeses, yoghurt and kefir have also been shown to be beneficial through their gut-friendly bacteria.
It is because of such nutritional benefits that a dairy-free cheese and pickle sandwich probably won’t pack the same nutritional punch; which is why you may consider finding nutrient top-ups from elsewhere.
Many supermarkets stock limited ranges, but an online search will reveal a staggering variety of available dairy-free cheeses, ranging from Cheddar-style blocks, to plain or flavoured spreads, to ‘melty’ cheeses that are marketed to the pizza-loving crowd.
Several of these products contain ingredients such as water and coconut oil, with soya protein, thickeners, and modified maize starch also finding their way onto many labels. As a result, these will have a very different nutritional profile to their dairy equivalents. They may also act differently when used in cooking.
In terms of micro-nutrients, some manufacturers are getting around this by fortifying their products so that some dairy-free milk, for example, have added calcium and vitamins B2, D and B12 — with the latter being particularly important because it is difficult to obtain naturally from a vegan diet.
If, for whatever reason, you are excluding dairy from your diet, here are some of the nutrients you should think of adding to your diet in other food forms.
Important supplements to replace while cutting out dairy
What it does: Not just essential for bone development and strength, calcium is important for regulating muscle contractions (including heartbeat) and ensuring that our blood clots normally.
Sources include: green leafy vegetables such as broccoli, cabbage, kale, watercress, pak choi and spring greens (spinach contains calcium but is a poor bioavailable source), Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, okra, and edamame beans. It is also found in calcium-set tofu, nuts and seeds. An excellent, non-vegetarian source, which is also rich in omega-3, is sardine/pilchard, if the bones are eaten.
What it does: This vitamin is responsible for making red blood cells, releasing energy from food, and also works alongside folate. It is vital for the nervous system and has been strongly associated with brain health. The NHS advises that as we get older, vitamin B12 becomes harder to absorb, so even greater attention needs to be paid to taking it in some form.
Sources include: animal products such as liver, meat and fish. For vegans, Marmite is a good source, as are some fortified foods: e.g. nutritional yeast, used to give foods a cheesy flavour, can contain B12, but check the label. Vitamin B12- status tests can be carried out through GPs and through nutritional therapists.
What it does: This is essential for thyroid health, although anyone with hyperthyroidism (Graves’ disease/over-active thyroid) should avoid taking in too much iodine. The NHS advises that adults need 0.14mg of iodine a day, and that this should be available through a varied diet.
Sources include: sea vegetables or seaweeds, white fish such as haddock and cod, and shellfish, eggs, meat and poultry. Iodine can also sometimes be obtained through ‘iodised salt’ which has been fortified.
Vitamin A (retinol)
What it does: This is important for helping the immune system to work properly, for healthy skin and the lining of some parts of the body, and for good eye health.
Sources include: eggs and oily fish. Liver and liver pâté are excellent sources; but because they contain high levels of vitamin A, are only recommended once a week to avoid taking in too much — current advice is that more than a daily average of 1.5mg of vitamin A over the years may affect bone strength, and make them more prone to fracture in later years.
Vegetarian options are orange-coloured vegetables such as carrots, squash and sweet potato; these contain betacarotene, which is converted by the body into vitamin A. Because vitamin A is a fatsoluble vitamin, it needs fat (e.g. olive oil) in the diet in order to be absorbed.
Vitamin B2 (riboflavin)
What it does: This is important for the nervous system, skin, eyes, and for energy production.
Sources include: eggs, organ meats such as kidney and liver (although liver should be restricted — see vitamin A) and meat. Vegetarian sources include mushrooms, whole grains, spinach and fortified foods.
What it does: This helps with bone and teeth health, and also helps to release energy from food.
Sources include: vegetarian sources such as brown rice, bread, and oats, and non-vegetarian sources such as meat, fish and poultry.
We are commonly told to avoid fat, but it is essential to our diet. It is a source of energy, and also helps absorption of other nutrients such as vitamins A, D and E.
Sources include: oils used for cooking and salad dressings, avocados, oily fish, seeds and nuts.
Protein is essential for the body’s growth and repair.
Sources include: meat, poultry, fish and eggs. However legumes, pulses and nuts are excellent vegetarian sources.
About the author
Nwasom is a pharmacy graduate and a pharmacist currently practising in the United Kingdom. I have great experience communicating with patients and their family as gained through working as a pharmacist in both the hospital and community pharmacy sector. I love writing so it was a natural thing to try and pass medical and health information on through writing.