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Here’s a question for the plant based ages: Can you eat dairy on a plant based diet? When transitioning to a plant based diet, one thing most people hate is the thought of giving up dairy. Swapping out cow’s milk for soy milk for their morning cereal sounds easy enough. But is life worth living without butter, or creamy salad dressing or cheese? Taking on a new, worthwhile goal, like going green, can take some time. For many, the last thing they want to give up is cheese.

Many would say It’s okay to cheat now and then.  Then again you really don’t have to. This is not your vegan father’s grocery shopping experience anymore. Today, we have variety. From cheese for pizza and creamy salad dressings to ice cream. There are so many delicious plant based alternatives to dairy. And most of them are available in your supermarket. Once you try them, you’ll never look back. They’re that good. 

bowl of vanilla ice cream with berries

But Isn’t Dairy Good For You?

Dairy has health benefits, but it has some drawbacks, too. While it’s rich in calcium, it’s high in saturated fats, and those aren’t good. The American Heart Association says saturated fats can lead to high cholesterol and heart disease.

We need calcium for the development, growth, and maintenance of our bones. In adults, it slows bone density loss. It also helps with muscle contraction and is important to blood clotting. But “real” dairy isn’t the only way to get the calcium you need.

Here are some non dairy sources of calcium for people on a whole foods plant based diet

  • Chia, sunflower and sesame seeds
  • Soy milk fortified with calcium carbonate
  • Dried figs (they make a great sweet treat)
  • Almonds
  • White beans
  • Edamame
  • Kale
  • Broccoli
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Mustard greens 
  • Collard greens
  • Okra
  • Oranges and orange juice
  • Butternut squash
  • Arugula

The Truth About The Dairy Industry

While health certainly enters into it, many choose to eat a plant-based diet for the animals and the planet. Some were shocked when they learned that those milk carton pictures of happy cows on a pasture may have misled them. 

Many people think cows are milk machines who automatically produce the product that’s included in so much of our food. But that, of course, is incorrect. Much like humans, cows produce milk when they have babies to feed. But when mother cows are feeding calves, there’s less milk for farmers to sell for human consumption. So on most dairy farms, calves are separated from their mothers when they’re 24 hours old. The farmer moves the babies into little enclosures called hutches. 

When they’re old enough, male calves are sold to become veal. Dairy farmers sell female cows for slaughter, too, when they stop producing enough milk. 

Cows And Climate Change

cows grazing

Cows are gassy animals because they eat mostly grass, which can be hard to digest. Since a byproduct of one of the microbes that breaks down food in their digestive systems produces methane, one cow can release 70-120 kgs of methane a year. Multiply that by 1.5 billion cows and bulls worldwide, and you have a lot of methane drifting off into the atmosphere. 

According to the ScienceABC website, methane is 23 times more harmful to the environment than carbon dioxide is. And when it mixes with oxygen in the atmosphere, it becomes carbon dioxide. 

So What’s A Dairy Lover To Do

Years ago, there were few alternatives to eating dairy in your daily diet. But now, there are many ways you can eat dairy free on a plant based diet. There are dairy-free options in almost every category, and you don’t have to go to a health food store to get them. You’ll find many of them in your supermarket. Some will be in the dairy case, some will be in the natural foods department, and others will have a section to themselves.

Here are some delicious dairy-free items to consider while you’re shopping

  • Soy and almond milk are with the rest of the milk. Check to make sure the kind you choose has enough calcium and protein. But you don’t need to waste most of a gallon or even a quart If you use milk just for cereal or coffee. Silk makes eight-ounce boxes of both soy and almond milk. They can be hard to find, but Amazon usually has them.
  • Check the dairy case for non dairy coffee creamer, too. And if you like some froth on your coffee, Amazon sells dairy-free “milk” for lattes and cappuccinos.
  • You won’t be able to tell the difference between Earth Balancebuttery spread” and real butter. I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter also makes a vegan product. Follow Your Heart is another popular brand of dairy-free butter. It’s available at most health food stores. 
  • There are several brands of dairy-free cheese, but Daiya is easiest to find. Look for American, cheddar, Swiss, provolone and even pepper jack and jalapeno Havarti. The “cheese” comes in slices, cubes and shreds.  Beware though: Most vegan cheeses contain little or no protein.
  • You’ll also find coconut and almond milk whipped cream in the dairy aisle. The dispensers can be a bit glitchy, but the “whipped cream” is delicious.

chia parfait with blueberries

  • Would life not be worth living without a big scoop of ice cream? Try Ben & Jerry’s non-dairy ice cream. You’ll think you’re eating the real thing. Breyers, So Delicious and Halo Top also make ice cream with no dairy.
  • Silk, Daiya, Kite Hill, Chobani and So Delicious all make dairy-free yogurt that also tastes like the real thing. Try their new oat milk yogurt that comes in exotic flavors like Spiced Pear & Fig from So Delicious. 
  • Going dairy-free doesn’t mean giving up your favorite ranch dressing. There are several brands of plant-based creamy salad dressings, but JUST and Daiya are easiest to find in the supermarkets. 
  • Do you love sour cream on your baked potatoes? Daiya and Kite Hill both make non dairy sour cream. Daiya makes vegan cream cheese, too.

colorful pizza with mozzarella

  • You can go dairy-free and have your pizza, too. Amy’s, American Flatbread and Daiya all make vegan pizza. Daiya even has a meat lovers’ pizza, with plant-based “meat.” Amy’s and Daiya also make dairy-free mac and cheese.
  • And finally, Oreo cookies are dairy-free. It’s probably best to not know what’s in that sweet, gooey filling. But it doesn’t contain milk. Another dairy-free sweet treat for your plant based diet is Daiya “cheesecake.” And some brands of dark chocolate, like Bark Thins, do not contain dairy. 

Check The Labels

woman with ice cream

If you’re transitioning off dairy to a whole food plant-based diet, be sure to check the labels on the food you buy. Dairy products can show up on ingredients lists where you least expect them. In addition to any form of milk and butter, look for butterfat, casein, lactalbumin and whey. Casein, lactalbumin and whey are all derivatives of dairy.

Foods that are likely to surprise you by containing dairy are boxed cereals and granola; cereal protein and energy bars; bread, rolls and doughnuts; prepared bread crumbs; crackers; and salty munchies.

Reading labels can be tedious and hard on the eyes. But the app called ‘Is It Vegan?,’ available for your mobile phone, will read the labels for you. It scans the barcode on the product you want to buy, shows you all the ingredients and tells you whether it’s vegan. Or look at the line on the label just below the ingredients list. Manufacturers have to list common allergens, like milk products, eggs and soy. 

Living The Plant Based Diet Lifestyle

yogurt parfaits in mason jars

When you first start out, grocery shopping can feel much more complicated. But, it gets easier as time goes on. And the benefits far outweigh that ‘just-getting-started’ confusion and inconvenience.

Eating a whole food plant based diet, or a mostly plant based diet, can help you lose weight and keep it off, lower your risk of heart disease and high blood pressure and help you control your blood sugar. 

Even if you don’t completely give up meat, dairy and eggs, just cutting back on all three will help the planet, the farm animals and, maybe more importantly, your health. Here’s to your good health, and good eating!