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What is a Dairy Free Diet?

M.C. Huguelet
Updated May 17, 2024
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A dairy free diet is an eating program that excludes cow’s milk as well as all foods derived from cow’s milk, such as yogurt, cheese, and ice cream. Individuals may choose to follow a dairy free diet for a variety of reasons. Some people abstain from dairy product consumption as part of an ovo-vegetarian or vegan lifestyle, while others avoid it to manage health conditions such as lactose intolerance, allergies, and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). While sourcing a range of non-dairy foods is not necessarily difficult, individuals should make sure that their diets include alternative sources of the vital nutrients normally derived from dairy products.

Some individuals follow a dairy free diet as part of an ovo-vegetarian or vegan lifestyle. Ovo-vegetarians generally avoid consuming meat and dairy products, while vegans do not consume any animal-derived foods. In these cases, the avoidance of dairy products is often linked to ethical concerns related to the perceived mistreatment of dairy cows.

Others abstain from dairy consumption due to health issues such as lactose intolerance, dairy allergies, or IBS. Sufferers of these conditions may experience painful or bothersome symptoms following the consumption of dairy-based foods. The adoption of a dairy free diet can help them manage or eliminate these symptoms.

Many people suffer from the condition known as lactose intolerance. Due to the shortage or absence of an enzyme called lactase normally present in the intestines, those with lactose intolerance have difficulty digesting lactose, one of the sugars found in dairy products. As a result, they may experience stomachaches, gas, and diarrhea. In most cases, these symptoms disappear when dairy intake is eliminated or restricted.

Dairy allergies are often caused by the body’s inability to process casein, a protein found in dairy products. Casein allergy symptoms can range from mild skin rashes to more serious reactions like throat constriction and respiratory difficulty. Following a dairy free diet will generally eliminate these allergic reactions.

Those suffering from IBS — chronic abdominal distress, often combined with gas, diarrhea, or constipation — sometimes attempt to curb their symptoms by avoiding dairy. This treatment may not be successful, however. Although IBS can sometimes be triggered by a dairy sensitivity, it can also arise from intolerance to other foods or even from excessive stress. IBS sufferers may wish to consult their physicians to determine whether a dairy free diet is likely to alleviate their symptoms.

As dairy products are rich in calcium as well as vitamins A and D — all vital to bone health — those avoiding dairy should seek alternative sources of these nutrients. When consumed regularly, soy products, leafy green vegetables, beans, and certain fish can supply calcium. Vitamin A can be found in carrots, sweet potatoes, pumpkin, and egg, while vitamin D is present in avocados, olives, and certain nuts.

Finally, those following a dairy free diet should be aware that dairy derivatives are often found in unsuspected places, such as cereals, candies, and deli meat. When shopping, take care to read product labels to ensure that your choices are in fact dairy free. If in doubt while eating in a restaurant, ask the server whether your menu choice contains any dairy derivatives.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
M.C. Huguelet
By M.C. Huguelet
Cate Huguelet, a Chicago-based freelance writer with a passion for storytelling, crafts engaging content for a wide range of publications, including WiseGeek. With degrees in Writing and English, she brings a unique perspective and a commitment to clean, precise copy that resonates with readers. Her ability to understand and connect with audiences makes her a valuable asset to any content creation team.
Discussion Comments
By Heavanet — On Jan 28, 2015

@talentryto- I think that your brother has a few options so he can still enjoy yogurt. First of all, depending on the severity of his lactose intolerance, he might be able to eat yogurt in moderation. He should ask his doctor if indulging in it once or twice a week would be o.k. for his condition.

Another options is lactose-free yogurt, which may be hard to find in some areas. If he can't find it, fat-free yogurt has less dairy content that full-fat yogurt.

Finally, your brother's best option might be to eat soy yogurt. I have had it before, and it has great flavor. Though he might not find it to be as creamy as dairy yogurt, I think that your brother will enjoy soy yogurt if it is no longer an option for him to eat any dairy products.

By Talentryto — On Jan 27, 2015

I have a brother who loves yogurt, but recently found out from his doctor that he needs to eat a dairy-free diet because he is lactose intolerant. Does he have any alternatives so he doesn't have to give up one of his favorite foods?

By Raynbow — On Jan 26, 2015

People with allergies to dairy foods can get very sick from eating them. Since it isn't always obvious on food packaging, people who need to eat dairy-free diets must closely read the ingredient lists to be sure they are not eating small amounts of dairy foods. When in doubt, it's a good idea to talk to a doctor or nutritionist about how to find hidden ingredients that are dairy-based.

M.C. Huguelet
M.C. Huguelet
Cate Huguelet, a Chicago-based freelance writer with a passion for storytelling, crafts engaging content for a wide...
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