Following up on July’s column, we’re taking a few months to explore what to do when you need (or want) to eliminate a certain food from your diet—not necessarily by substituting processed products but by finding a workaround using whole foods.
After going gluten free, going dairy free seems to be the next hot nutrition topic of the day. The lines are clearly drawn on the subject—not just pro and con but within the pro side, whether whole or lowfat/nonfat are the real enemy. And then there’s the question of organic or pastured or conventional….
What to do? Is this the time to join the crowd and go dairy free—after all, cow milk was meant for baby cows and it’s “unnatural” for humans to drink it, right—or is it the time to stand fast with years of research on “the benefits of dairy for your bones?”
I definitely have my own views on the matter, and I it’s beyond my scope of work to decide for you!
As always, my advice is to educate yourself! Read both sides of the argument, and pay attention to who sponsors the studies and articles you read—is there a hidden agenda in play? And remember, while the government may claim to know what’s best for you, government policy is often influenced by powerful industry lobbies.
Deciding to go dairy free
If you have been diagnosed with an allergy to casein or a lactose intolerance, take your diagnosis seriously: dairy is definitely not for you. If you suspect you may suffer from an allergy or intolerance, do get tested—your primary care physician and/or a practitioner of functional medicine can help you with that.
If you have been tested and the results are negative or testing is not a route you want to go, you may still suspect you have a sensitivity to dairy: common symptoms include digestive issues (constipation, gas, bloating, diarrhea), chronic headaches, body aches, congestion, what appear to be seasonal allergies, or skin rashes and/or acne.
Another reason dairy is in the crosshairs is that it is considered highly inflammatory—and inflammation is seen by many as the root of many chronic diseases.
If you have any of these symptoms or suspect that you have system-wide inflammation, consider trying an elimination diet, preferably with some guidance from a healthcare practitioner or health coach well-versed in supporting such a project.
The beauty of this experiment is that it costs you nothing, and you might end up discovering how good you feel without dairy in your diet. Or you may realize that you really don’t notice a difference.
If you decide to go dairy free, you will need to become a label reader. Most foods that contain dairy are easy to identify as they will have the words “milk,” “milk solids,” “cream” or “butter” in the ingredient list. Whey is naturally found in of dairy products—and if you are looking to stick to whole foods, you’re barking up the wrong tree if whey protein isolate shows up on the list!
As with going gluten free, going dairy free is definitely not a lifestyle choice for the fainthearted who are accustomed to a lot of dairy in their lives, but it’s likewise one that can bring markedly improved health. Do you have to find replacements for your morning coffee, your cereal, your yogurt, your glass(es) of milk, your cheese, YOUR ICE CREAM???
Before you commit, consider whether possibly just reducing the amount of dairy you eat would be enough:
- Can you give up sour cream and ice cream and yogurt and limit yourself to a splash of milk in your coffee and an ounce or two of cheese, but not daily?
- Or do you want to keep the probiotics from yogurt in your diet and give up milk and cheese?
- Would switching to goat dairy alleviate some of your symptoms? Many people who have issues with cow dairy find that goat dairy (milk, yogurt, and cheese are the most commonly available items) eliminates their problems.
Okay, so we’re doing this!
If you decide that quitting dairy entirely is in your future, I always find that the most healthful approach to removing something from the diet is not replacing it but retraining the palate to not want it.
- If you are not allergic to dairy but choose to remove it, try slowly reducing the amount of it in your diet rather than quitting cold turkey (and cheese).
- Look for recipes that are naturally dairy-free.
- Spread nut butter where you’d use cream cheese.
- Use less milk in your coffee or tea, gradually reaching a point where you don’t add any.
- Choose bean-based and vinegar-based dressings and dips over ranch and bleu cheese.
- Try sorbet in place of ice cream (and be careful—sorbets contain a lot of sugar, so like ice cream, they’re not an every-night sort of indulgence).
There are several reasons I recommend that you don’t simply substitute dairy-free alternatives:
- Dairy-free alternatives tend to be expensive.
- Soy-, nut-, seed-, and grain-based dairy alternatives often lack a number of vitamins and minerals naturally found in dairy, sort of the way gluten-free flours are often not enriched the way wheat flour is.
- Soy-based alternatives can be very hard to digest, and nut-/seed-based alternatives can cause allergic reactions in some people.
- So-called “non-dairy creamers” are usually nutritionally inferior to good old milk or cream: they are highly-processed foods (or what Marion Nestle calls UFOs—unidentified food-like objects) that are produced in chemistry labs and contain a large number of synthetic fillers and emulsifiers along with the more recognizable ingredients such as (a lot of) added sugar and … vegetable oil? They are definitely NOT close to nature on the whole food spectrum.
- In my opinion, dairy-free substitutes Just. Don’t. Taste. As. Good! Yes, they look like milk or cream or cheese or ice cream, but they lack the flavor and mouthfeel of the real thing, and very often, they leave a terrible aftertaste or what we call “sweaters on your teeth and tongue.”
Of course, there may be times when you really do need a milk substitute, in which case I strongly urge you to make your own! It’s really, really easy, and you will end up with a minimally processed, no-sugar-added, additive-free food. You can download a general nut/seed milk recipe here and spend some time experimenting to find your favorite ingredients.
As a professionally-trained chef, I find that you can successfully substitute homemade nut or seed milk in most cooking and baking recipes that call for cow’s milk. Grain-based alternatives, such as rice or oat milk, generally don’t contain enough fat to be substitutable 1:1 without making other adjustments, particularly in baking.
Ann Arbor’s Liza Baker, a WLAA health columnist, is a full-time Integrative Nutrition® health coach, cookbook author, part-time consultant, and woefully underpaid COO of a busy family of four. Her work is grounded in the belief that women can live happy, healthy lives, meeting all our obligations and honoring our own wildest, sweetest dreams. Her programs support women 40+ who feel that the only way out of their overscheduled lives involves a plane ticket, a wad of cash, and a change of identity. Liza coaches them in identifying and interrupting the patterns that contribute to overwhelm and in establishing simple, sustainable new habits that will help them not just survive but thrive in what—contrary to popular belief—can be the happiest, healthiest decades of our lives. Liza lives in a half-empty nest in Ann Arbor and is passionate about health and happiness, education and exercise, SOLE/SOUL food and social justice. You can get a taste of her work at https://simply-healthcoaching.com and join the (Sorta) Secret Sisterhood, her membership site for women over 40, at https://simply-healthcoaching.com/membership.