I am a huge fan of dairy. Specifically pastured dairy products like raw milk and cultured items like yogurt and kefir. I believe it is a nutrient-dense food that, for many, can provide the body with much-needed nutrients such as calcium and vitamin K2. These nutrients that make dairy so unique and desirable are even more important during periods of growth and development, such as pregnancy and breastfeeding, childhood and adolescence. Many athletes and bodybuilders, also with very high nutrient needs, rely heavily on dairy for their special nutritional needs. But dairy consumption in recent years has seen a steep decline, despite how much it has to offer. Due to allergies, intolerances, and even dietary fads, many people today are removing dairy from their diets for, some with success and others not so much. This guide is meant to help those who wonder if dairy may actually be doing more harm than good in their diet, helping to determine if dairy is actually the culprit and, if it needs to be removed, how to do that without missing out on the nutrients missing with eliminating dairy.
Do I think everyone needs to go dairy-free, or that dairy is somehow "unnatural" to the human diet? Absolutely not. When Weston A. Price traveled the world to study indigenous diets and healthy outcomes, he found many cultures that consumed dairy. This was not always from cow's milk, however. People from all over the world figured out how to use dairy as a good source of nutrition thousands of years ago, which came from goats, sheep, camels, yak, reindeer, and more, in addition to cows. There is now evidence of humans consuming dairy from different species for over six thousand years, proving that human resourcefulness in harnessing the nutritional power of dairy is nothing new, and is frankly just as "natural" to us now as farming, raising livestock, gardening, fermentation, cooking, and many other dietary practices not seen in other animals.
Of course, I only advocate consuming dairy from animals that are treated well, are raised outside, are fed a natural diet on pasture, and are not given unnecessary chemicals. When cows are raised in this way, they are not only happier, but their milk is more nutritious. Then, when left raw and/or allowed to ferment to create yogurt and other products, it is even more healthful. Real milk contains calcium, potassium, phosphorus, vitamins A and K2, many B vitamins, protein, healthy fats and cholesterol, iodine, and even probiotics, so it clearly cannot be all bad.
However, it is true that not all people can tolerate dairy and some, in fact, are allergic. This is not everyone, but it is very common now in many dietary circles and paradigms to hate on dairy. As I showed above, dairy is not necessarily a dietary villain, and automatically assuming it should be eliminated is not always the right thing to do. So, do you need to go dairy-free? And, if so, how can you do this healthfully? Here is a guide to get you started.
First, off figure out if dairy is actually a problem for you. How will you know?
Consider your ancestry. As mentioned, many cultures had dairy, all over the world. Depending on your particular ancestry, you very well may tolerate dairy just fine. Dig into traditional diets, such as those studied by Weston A. Price, to see if dairy foods, from whichever animal, is something you genetically are set up for.
Get allergy testing done. Figuring out if you have an actual allergy is a good first step. If you are truly allergic, then eliminating dairy is absolutely necessary. However, if you get allergy testing that comes back negative, consider testing then for lactose intolerance. If both come back negative, but some types of dairy still don't seem to work for you and symptoms persist, keep doing your dietary detective work. Aside from testing, if you already know you get a distinct reaction, perhaps in the gut, sinuses, skin, etc. right after consuming dairy, then you already know taking it out is appropriate and you can move on to the foods section below.
If a true allergy or intolerance isn't "proven" by lab tests, but you sense you may not tolerate dairy, start by eliminating only processed dairy, such as pasteurized, homogenized milk and cream. Especially avoid ultra high temperature (UHT) pasteurized milk, filtered milk, and any products made with these such as half and half. In this step, start by keeping in butter, ghee, raw milk and cream, full fat yogurt, kefir, and aged cheeses. Try this for 2-3 weeks.
If you still notice an adverse reaction to milk, or have symptoms without an identified cause, try other species of milk, such as goat and sheep, instead of cow's milk. Raw goat or sheep milk, butter, cheese, yogurt, and kefir are all available either directly from farmers or at health food stores. Try these dairy products from animals other than cows, to see if symptoms improve or you generally start to feel better.
If you find you have a poor reaction to raw, unprocessed cow dairy and dairy from other animals, then elimination may need to be the next step. In this case, take out all dairy from all species for 4-6 weeks to see if total elimination begins to improve symptoms. The cause for an inflammatory response to dairy, unless explicitly allergic or lactose intolerant, is usually found in the gut. Leaky gut can cause a negative to reaction to dairy, though it is itself a harmless food. So, during this elimination phase, start to work on gut-healing. This may include getting lots of probiotic foods and supplements, if fermented foods aren't tolerated, as well as generous amounts of bone broth, organ meats, egg yolks, and pastured animal fats. Look at how other lifestyle factors may be damaging your gut health as well, including stress, sleep, exercise, chronic dieting, and lack of time spent in nature. Consider using a gut-healing protocol such as the GAPS diet or working with a practitioner in person as well, who can help work on your unique body. These are only general guidelines, not meant to diagnose or treat anyone; if you feel some serious healing needs to happen, find someone to work with you can help you specifically.
After this period of elimination and gut healing, see if you have healed enough to add in dairy again. Start gradually, adding dairy back in step-by-step to see if it is well tolerated again. Begin by adding in goat or sheep milk and dairy products, then try raw milk or cultured cow dairy products. If you find you tolerate any of these, great! You may be able to eat dairy again, especially in its natural form, either raw or fermented. If symptoms come back with adding in these foods again, it may be best to keep it out indefinitely, perhaps trying again in a year or so after doing more gut healing.
Whether during the 4-6 week dairy-free time, or if you are compelled to leave out dairy indefinitely, there is more to be considered once you take this out. For those whom dairy is not an option, extra attention must be given to some other areas of the diet. You cannot just eliminate an entire food group, especially one that provides some very necessary nutrients, and not replace them. I see so many people not getting enough calcium because they took out dairy without mindfully replacing what it gave to the diet. I am very concerned there will be an increase in cases of osteoporosis when the current generation of young people, eschewing dairy, start to age. This is an important issue to address now, as bone health is best taken care of proactively, not when a bone breaks or tooth decay begins.
Mindfully including foods and/or supplements rich in calcium and other minerals, along with fat-soluble vitamins, will ensure that your diet remains nutrient-dense and complete, and also relieves the burden dairy may have on your body if not well tolerated. If you are going to consume dairy alternatives, such as when no animal's dairy works for your body, be very picky and read labels closely. Most milk alternatives, like soy or oat milk, are extremely processed and provide very little nutrition. Yes, some are enriched with synthetic vitamins, but even these do not fully replace all that whole, raw, grass-fed dairy can offer in the diet. If you decide to consume these, I recommend you only use them on rare occasions, and select brands that are soy-free, refined oil-free and as minimally processed as possible. Those made from nuts and seeds, rather than grains and soy, are better choices. Still, they are not nutrient-dense, real foods, so you must be sure you are replacing what is missing by taking out dairy.
So, if you aren't eating any dairy, what might you be missing? Here is a list of foods you will need to emphasize in order to replace dairy's nutrients.
Nutrients of Concern and Foods to Replace Them
Calcium: I would be hard-pressed to find someone who doesn't know dairy is a good source of calcium, so this one is pretty obvious. However, this is a huge gap I see in the nutrient intake of almost anyone who decides to remove dairy. Our bodies still need 1000-1500 mg of calcium per day, whether we tolerate dairy or not. A lack of calcium in the diet is associated with poor density, including risk of osteoporosis, as well as tooth decay, irregular heartbeat and more.
What to eat instead: Fish with edible bones (a major source of calcium in traditional diets that did not contain dairy), such as sardines or salmon, which are the best non-dairy source of calcium and should be included at least twice a week in the diet. Besides fish bones, some plant foods offer bioavailable calcium, but most are in amounts that are much lower than animal sources. These plants include: cruciferous vegetables and dark leafy greens, and absorption is increased if the vegetables are cooked; beans and nuts; winter squash; seaweed; and blackstrap molasses. No matter what combination of foods you use, they need to add up to around 1000 mg per day of calcium, or up to 1500 for pregnant and nursing women.
Potassium: Needed for healthy blood pressure, heart rate, muscle contraction, and electrolyte balance, potassium is actually difficult for many to get enough of in the diet. Dairy is a surprisingly good source, so if you start to take this out, begin to replace it with the other main sources in the diet: fresh fruits and vegetables.
What to eat instead: Especially good sources are potatoes, sweet potatoes, bananas, avocado, berries, tomatoes, greens, plantains and coconut water. Lean meat will also supply some, but I encourage relying on fresh fruits and vegetables for this, as I encourage meat with fat on it for the other nutrients it provides.
Vitamin K2: Pastured dairy is a fantastic source of vitamin K2, which is needed for calcium signaling, sending it to the bones rather than soft tissues and arteries. This promotes healthy bones and teeth, while protecting the heart, brain, kidneys and other tissues from calcification. While butter and cheese are delicious and easy sources of K2, not everyone can consume these and, luckily, there are some other great sources available. Because this is a fat-soluble vitamin, eating plenty of fat is needed to absorb this properly, no matter where you get it form.
What to eat instead: Poultry livers, such as goose, duck, and chicken are some of the best sources of vitamin K2. Two servings of liver per week is adequate to meet many of your body's needs, emphasizing poultry livers for the K2 if you don't consume any dairy. Natto, a fermented soybean product, is also rich in K2, while other fermented foods can provide trace amounts.
B vitamins: B vitamins are needed for numerous functions in the body, including energy metabolism, nervous system function, and methylation. Dairy is a good source of many of the B vitamins, including B12, B6, B2 (riboflavin), and B7, pantothenic acid (when raw), so these deserve some attention if dairy is out. For vegetarians and vegans, or those for whom meat may not be readily available or in their price range, these may need to be supplemented with a good B complex as well.
What to eat instead: B12 is not always an issue when going dairy-free, as it is present in all animal foods, so getting plenty of meat, organ meats, and eggs can supply plenty of B12. However, if you have limited meat or egg intake for various reasons, then pay special attention to B12 and consider supplementation. B6 is abundant in unprocessed foods, so eating enough of these will help meet your needs. B6 is rich in meat, organ meats, beans, and legumes, and in smaller amounts in some vegetables and fruits. B2, also known as riboflavin, is rich in raw milk, as it is susceptible to damage by heat. Non-dairy sources of riboflavin include meat, fish and shellfish, organ meats, legumes, and whole grains. Dairy is not necessarily the best source of B7, pantothenic acid, but it is a contributing source for many. If removing dairy, be sure to consume plenty of seeds and nuts, liver, meat, fish and shellfish, eggs, and generally unprocessed foods. Clearly, all the B vitamins that would be provided by milk are able to be found in other foods. Give extra attention to liver and organ meats, bone broth, muscle meat, fish and shellfish, eggs and whole grains to ensure all of your various B vitamin needs are met sans dairy.
Iodine: While we typically think of foods from the sea as the best sources of iodine, dairy foods actually contribute a good deal of iodine to the diet, especially for those not consuming iodized salt. If you are excluding dairy and don't eat iodized salt, which I recommend to avoid, then getting adequate iodine must come from sea foods, both plant and animal in origin. Iodine is essential for healthy thyroid function and hormone balance, especially for fertility and pregnancy, so it cannot be overlooked.
What to eat instead: Consuming two servings of fish or shellfish and two servings of seaweed per week should be adequate to meet your iodine needs without dairy. Many fruits and vegetables will contain trace amounts, but seafoods are definitely the most dense source of iodine, and the fatty fish like sardines also provide selenium, also needed for a healthy thyroid.
Cholesterol and Healthy Fats: Cholesterol and fat are essential in the diet, and full-fat dairy can be a great source of these in the diet. All full-fat dairy will contain cholesterol and arachidonic acid, while grass-fed dairy not only supplies these, but also has small amounts of omega 3 fatty acids. Dairy also provides conjugated linoleic acid when full-fat and grass-fed. Without dairy supplying these in the diet, it is necessary to consume plenty of animal fat from grass-fed animals in its stead to replace these health-promoting fats. These fats needed for hormone protection, healthy inflammation response, satiety, healing and wound repair, brain health, skin health, and even absorption of fat-soluble vitamins, like D and K. With so many essential roles in the body, we must get plenty of other fat when dairy is out, and "non-dairy milks" will simply never replace dairy in this category, so other animal fats must fill this role.
What to eat instead: For cholesterol, eat at least 2-3 eggs per day, along with animal fat like tallow or lard. These also provide arachidonic acid, as will fatty cuts of meat and fat-rich bone broth made from pastured animal bones, along with conjugated linoleic acid. For omega 3 fatty acids are abundant in fatty fish and shellfish, so two servings of these per week will be beneficial. Other fats to include to replace butter and dairy fat include coconut oil, avocado oil, and olive oil, but emphasize rendered animal fats and egg yolks for even more benefit when dairy is excluded.
Because the absence of dairy can leave such a huge nutritional gap in the diet of many, that dairy-free milk replacements simply cannot compare to when used to replace it in the diet, supplements may also be needed. Getting plenty of the other foods discussed above to ensure your body is getting what it needs is of course the first step, but adding in food-based supplements can also be needed, especially if your diet is limited in any other way besides excluding dairy.
Probiotics from cultured dairy like yogurt and kefir
What to eat instead: fermented vegetables like sauerkraut and kim chi; small amounts of cultured soy like tempeh, shoyu, miso, and natto; fermented vegetables like kvass, water kefir, and kombucha; non-dairy yogurt on occassion, made from cashews, coconut milk, or almond milk--avoid soy- or oat-based yogurts
Some supplements to consider when going dairy-free include:
Bone meal: This provides a bioavailable source of calcium, and can be taken in powder or capsule, form. I recommend this highly if you remove all dairy and are not able or willing to regularly consume fish with edible bones (such as canned salmon or canned sardines) and do not eat a lot of beans, nuts, or green vegetables, such as a low-carb dieter.
Vitamin D3 with K2: These fat-soluble vitamins work together with calcium and several other minerals to ensure good bone health. If you aren't eating dairy and don't want to eat liver 1-2 times per week, then adding in this supplement is a must. If you live in a Northern climate, this is probably a good idea to supplement with, even if you do eat dairy, during the winter months.
Liver Capsules: If you don't eat any liver, adding in a desiccated liver capsule supplement can also help meet some of your needs, especially if you can't get them from dairy. It provides B vitamins, iron, and small amounts of vitamins D and K2. Unlike the supplement mentioned above, it also contains vitamin A that would be missing without liver or dairy.
Cod Liver Oil: Cod liver oil supplies vitamin A and omega 3 fats, both found in full-fat pastured dairy, so it can be a great supplement for the dairy-free folks. This also supplies small amounts of vitamin D. Be sure to purchase a good quality brand for your cod liver oil, looking for extra virgin or fermented virgins if it fits your budget.
Kelp: I only recommend adding a kelp-based iodine supplement if you are dairy-free and also don't regularly consume animals and/or plants from the sea. If you don't eat dairy but get two servings each of fish or shellfish and seaweed, you may not need to supplement with this. If both dairy and seafood are off the table, you need to supplement with iodine in this case.
A traditional, nutrient-dense food like quality dairy, from many different animals, is such an important part of many diets. Unfortunately, modern processing practices, poor gut health, immune dysfunction, and the assault on our bodies from environmental toxins make it so not everyone can enjoy this food with good health outcomes. In this case, be sure to take extra care to meet your body's unique nutritional needs, and you can live a happy, healthy life, all while being dairy-free!
Brine & Broth
I am a gut health-focused nutritionist and online health coach based in Southwest Wisconsin. My recipes and philosophies center around traditional, nutrient-dense foods that support robust gut health.