Don't Have a Cow Over Dairy-Free Dairy
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Have you explored the dairy case lately? "Dairy case" is a bit of a misnomer, because much of its refrigerated shelf space is now dominated by a diverse array of dairy-free alternatives. There's the standard soy milk, of course, and almond and rice milk. Then there are the newer and wildly popular coconut milks, and all sorts of interesting hybrids and flavors...coconut-almond, seven-grain, and hemp milk to name just a few. And heads up...algae milk could be coming soon to a store near you.
Milks aren't the only products dropping the dairy. More and more packaged foods are now being formulated dairy-free, without any milk- or cheese-based ingredients, and proclaiming this proudly on the front of the label.
Opting for a dairy-free diet is certainly a valid choice, if you're making informed decisions about what you eat. But there's also a lot of misinformation circulating about dairy and dairy-free diets, and the pros and cons of both.
Lactose Intolerant? Choose Swiss or Cheddar Cheese
If you're shopping for dairy-free products because you have a milk allergy, or you've willfully decided to give up dairy because you don't consume animal products for any number of reasons, then certainly it's an easy choice.
If, regrettably, you avoid milk and its kin because you are lactose-intolerant, you should know that you don't have to go completely dairy-free in order to avoid uncomfortable symptoms. Many people don't realize that hard cheeses, like Swiss and cheddar, are very low in lactose, and, in reasonable quantities, don't cause stomach upset in most people with lactose intolerance.
Depending on your sensitivity, you may be able to tolerate yogurt as well. Yogurt contains bacteria that help to digest some of the lactose in the milk, so there's less for your body to process. Small amounts of milk-based ingredients in packaged foods may not be an issue either, again, depending on your own personal sensitivity. It takes a little trial and error to figure out which foods you can safely consume, but if you enjoy these foods and want to keep them in your diet, it's worth a little experimentation.
It's also important to recognize that "dairy-free" doesn't guarantee a product is healthy. Just because a beverage or food is free of one ingredient (be it dairy, gluten, sugar, or trans fat) doesn't mean the ingredients itdoescontain are good for you. For example, many non-dairy milks, especially the flavored types like chocolate and vanilla, are loaded with sugar. An 8-ounce glass of one popular brand of vanilla almond milk, for example, contains 13 grams of added sugar. That's more than 3 teaspoons of sugar, or roughly the amount found in a serving of Oreo cookies. Fortunately, you can avoid the glut of added sugar by purchasing unsweetened varieties of your favorite milks. This is just another friendly reminder to always read the Nutrition Facts Panel and ingredients list carefully, regardless of how healthy a product appears on the surface. Almonds and soybeans don't come drowning in sugar, and neither should their milk-ified versions.
The Calcium Question
Lastly, it's important to pay attention to how much calcium you're getting in a typical day. This is a concern for everyone -- whether you include dairy in your diet or not. Just because you have milk with your cereal or eat a yogurt with lunch doesn't ensure you're meeting your body's calcium needs.
If you follow a dairy-free diet, it's certainly possible to get all the calcium you need from non-dairy sources, but it does take some planning to ensure you're getting enough. Most plant-based milks are fortified with the same amount of calcium found in an equivalent serving of cow's milk (300 milligrams per 8-ounce serving). Other good vegan sources of calcium include collard greens, kale, turnip greens, soybeans (edamame), bok choy, broccoli and broccoli rabe, tofu made with calcium, beans, almonds, and calcium-fortified foods. Adults need 1,000 to 1,200 milligrams of calcium per day. You can use this handy chart to tally up your own intake.
Do you eat a dairy-free diet? What are your favorite dairy-free substitutes?
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