How to Go Dairy-Free (everything you need to know in 4 helpful tips!)

How to go dairy-free diet

Do you have sinus congestion? Constant acne? A bad mood that makes you scream at your cat for no reason? Unexplainable joint pain? Have an impossible time losing weight? Or an angry irritable bowel that seems to rebel against every food you eat? Eating dairy might be to blame for all, or none of, the above! (Yes, nutrition can be unnecessarily complicated sometimes).

However, if you’ve already started to think that your daily diet of dairy may be making your life more than a little miserable, you may want to try eliminating it through what we call an “elimination diet” in this biz. In other words, you want to kick that dairy to the curb! At least for a short time… though hopefully a long time, at least when it comes to conventional (i.e. non-organic) dairy.

If you’ve decided to say goodbye to dairy, here are four handy, and hopefully helpful, tips to get you started off on the right foot:  

1. Arm yourself with dairy substitutes.

Let’s be real: chances are you’re not suddenly going to stop enjoying your morning coffee or your gigantic bowl of cereal, especially not when you’re already on a self-imposed diet. So the best advice is to go shopping in advance for the foods or ingredients you’ll use to substitute all your favourite dairy products. Will you buy almond milk? (Or better yet, make your own – it really is as easy as I mention and in 10 minutes, you can have the most flavourful, creamy almond milk you could ever imagine.)

Will you buy coconut milk? If you do, buy it in the refrigerated cartons, not the cans, because coconut milk in cans tends to be a lot thicker and not the best replacement for milk on your cereal.

Will you buy soy? And if you do, always, always buy organic so you know it’s free of genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

Will you try a non-nut milk like sunflower seed milk? Available in grocery stores (or make your own, same as almond milk above), sunflower seed is an excellent choice for anyone who is allergic to nuts. In the same vein, you can buy or make your own hemp milk, flax milk, pumpkin seed milk, sesame milk, etc.

Your pantry and your everyday grocery store are full of options!

And remember, shopping in advance is the real key here: don’t wait until Monday morning when you’re rushing off to work to think about how you’re going to eliminate the dairy that day. It needs to be done before crunch time.

But I can’t give up ice cream! No fear, the ice cream monster is here! Just kidding. But seriously, the good news is that most grocery stores carry delicious dairy-free ice creams, made from coconut milk, rice, soy, even hemp. Of course, I happen to think you’ll be just as happy making your own dairy-free ice cream.

But I can’t give up butter in my baked foods! Yes, you can. Coconut butter is a terrific substitute for butter in baked goods. Your baked goods won’t taste like coconut, don’t worry, but they will be light and fluffy. I replace butter with coconut butter, often.

But I can’t give up yogurt! Luckily there are great dairy-free options on the market, made from coconut milk, which I love, soy or almond milk. You can also make your own, though the process is a bit involved for the average person going dairy-free for the first time.

But I can’t give up whipped cream! I know, I hear you, we’re practically twins. (But you have given up that edible oil product with a white and blue lid in a plastic container, right? You know the one I’m talking about… The one you have to defrost in the fridge before eating? Right? Please tell me you’ll stay away from that junk at any cost!)

Honestly, I could probably eat whipped cream every day and never tire of it. Luckily coconut whipped cream (made from the coconut cream solidified at the top of a can of chilled coconut milk) is better than any dairy whipped cream I’ve ever eaten. Coconut milk is rich, creamy and naturally full of good fats, fats like medium chain triglycerides (MCTs) that can rev up our metabolism and even help us lose weight. Bonus!

Because of their buttery-ness, cashews are a great substitute for dairy products like sour cream, “cream” cheese and/or ricotta. Once you try your hand at those, you likely won’t ever go back to the store-bought, additive-filled stuff. Another benefit of making your own is that you won’t have to worry about fishing out an expired plastic tub of sour cream that somehow grew a huge mustache of mold around it.

Sadly you may have to give up cheese as you know it, at least temporarily. There are soy-based cheeses, though I have yet to try any I really loved. If you’re feeling adventurous, you could try your hand at making your own nut-based cheese. Although I’ve seen a few brands of these on the market, they are often laced with additives and crazy ingredients. I’d avoid them, personally.

For everything else, I’m convinced you can find delicious (and most certainly more nutritious) dairy-free substitutes for all of your favourite foods. They won’t taste exactly the same (why would they?) but I happen to think they’ll taste even better. If nothing else, the flavours are a lot more interesting!  

2. Look for hidden sources of dairy in your daily diet.

Even after you’ve diligently cut out milk on your cereal, in your coffee, your afternoon cheese and crackers, in your ice cream or nightcap, you’ll still need to do a little label reading. You may not realize that some of the foods you eat every day may contain whey and/or casein. And for the purposes of this dairy elimination diet, ALL dairy needs to go – at least until you figure out if it really is the dairy that’s giving you that nonstop stuffy nose, that bloated “Free Willy” belly, or those black circles under your eyes (allergic shiners).  

For example, you’ll want to check your protein powder (whey/casein are often used in protein powders because they’re cheap and higher in protein than many plant-based protein powders). There are a number of plant-based (read dairy-free) protein powders on the market, made from pea protein, hemp, soy, even pumpkin seed.

If you don’t like any of these (the prices may cause sticker shock!), an easy way to amp up the protein in your diet, say in smoothies or shakes, is to simply add and blend hemp seeds. Hemp seeds have 5-6 g of protein PER TABLESPOON. Add 2 or 3 tablespoons of these and you’ve suddenly got protein levels that can compete with the dairy-based protein powder you’re replacing.

And best of all, the hemp seeds are also loaded with omega-3 fatty acids, which help support a happy brain (and mood!), happy heart, happy joints, happy gut, happy blood sugar, happy skin and a happy immune system.

You get the picture!

For more info, check out this extensive list of possible Omega-3 health benefits.

Many processed foods like chocolate, commercial salad dressings, cereals, baking mixes, granola or “nutrition” bars, candies, crackers, potato chips, sometimes even peanut butter, often contain dairy in some form or another. Processed foods are a minefield so read your labels carefully. If it contains ingredients your grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food, you probably don’t want to eat it.  

3. Avoid restaurants temporarily if you can, or at least do your homework before you go if you can’t.

There are some restaurants that do a great job of accommodating food allergies and food sensitivities and there are others that don’t. Unfortunately, it can be hard to tell them apart unless you have first-hand recommendations from friends or family for specific restaurants in your local area.

For this reason, ideally I recommend avoiding restaurants during your dairy elimination trial. But if you can’t avoid restaurants during this time, here are a few tips:

  1. Go online and check out the menu. Make sure there are ample choices for dairy-free meals (and don’t forget about all of the ingredients that go into making these foods… e.g. butter is often overlooked).
  2. Call the restaurant you want to visit beforehand and talk to the manager or preferably, the chef, about the foods you’re avoiding. If you can, find out which menu meals do contain dairy and whether there is likely to be cross-contamination in the kitchen.
  3. Ask questions to find out what you need to know. If a restaurant can’t cook the meals on its menu without the allergy-offending foods (in this case, all things dairy), try ordering off menu. If the restaurant can’t or refuses to accommodate your needs, or if staff refuse to tell you how certain meals are prepared, cooked or served, steer clear.
  4. When you visit the restaurant, make sure you mention your restrictions to your server and emphasize how important it is for you not to consume any dairy. Say it’s an allergy if you need to because allergies are often taken more seriously. At the moment, and until you figure out otherwise, it is potentially an allergy for you.

So, don’t be afraid to ask as many questions as you need to. And when in doubt, don’t feel embarrassed about having to send food back. It may prevent you from regretting it in a big way later. Like anyone else, you are entitled to enjoy your meal without feeling sick or uncomfortable later.  

4. Don’t stress about buying the dairy-free substitutes you need to buy.

I know this sounds ironic given that I’m always harping on people to just make their own, but this is important.

Don’t stress about making your own almond or other dairy-free milk all the time.

Don’t stress about making your own dairy-free ice cream, sour cream or yogurt.

Don’t stress about making your own delectable nut cheeses (unless you want to). In other words, keep it simple, at least to start.

I know I gave you a lot of options above for making your own dairy-free foods, but it’s really just to show you how many choices you do have. Eliminating dairy doesn’t mean eating only fruits and vegetables for the rest of your days. It actually opens you up to an entire world of new tastes, textures and foods that might not otherwise be part of your diet. And these foods are often incredibly nourishing and nutritious.

If you decide you want to, you can branch out later but for now go easy on yourself to keep up the habit. It’s much better to buy your dairy-free products than to cut your elimination diet short because you feel frustrated, confused and overwhelmed… and you’re thinking I DON’T HAVE TIME TO MAKE ALL MY OWN FOOD FROM SCRATCH, ASHLEIGH. (Emphasis my own… Did I mention frustrated?)

For now, if you aren’t as confident in the kitchen as you would like to be, or if you are very busy and/or time-starved, it’s better to buy what you need to substitute instead of quickly going back to eating dairy before you find out whether it’s the cause of your symptoms because it just feels like

That said, be sure to read labels diligently and avoid food products that contain a lot of unpronounceable, alien ingredients.

Do the best you can do at any given time and that’s the best thing you can do all of the time (that’s my first ever Ash-ism, what do you think?).

Life is a plate… Eat up!


5 thoughts on “How to Go Dairy-Free (everything you need to know in 4 helpful tips!)

  1. Pingback: Dairy-Free Potato Salad with Purslane and Fresh Herbs | Ashleigh Grange, RHN

  2. Jo-Ann Blondin says:

    Great post Ashleigh. I great with every point you made. I would also add to read ingredients on packaged goods. Dairy is showing up every where. Even in powdered coconut milk (not the canned – just powdered – how strange is that.

    Totally agree with keeping it simple first. Making your own is great but time consuming so to start, find substitutes that work well.

    Jo-Ann Blondin

    • Ashleigh Grange says:

      So glad you liked it, Jo-Ann! <3 That's a great tip - as manufacturers get sneakier, we also have to get smarter and read all label ingredients. I include a number of the names dairy hides under on a Dairy-Free Handout I give my clients. Makes finding those sneaky sources of dairy a bit easier!

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