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Dairy-Free Diet Plan: Benefits, Breastfeeding & More

Article author photo Arpi Gasparyan by Arpi Gasparyan | Last updated on August 07, 2023
Medically reviewed by Igor Bussel Article author photo Igor Bussel

The dairy-free diet excludes all dairy products: animal milk and its derivatives, such as ice cream, yogurt, cheese, and butter. Foods containing ingredients from milk (milk powder, casein, whey) should be avoided too.

This article provides all the information needed about the dairy-free diet.

Dairy-free Diet vs. Lactose-free Diet

Dairy-free: Dairy-free products contain no animal milk or milk-derived products. However, this diet allows the consumption of milk alternatives from plants, nuts, and grains.

Lactose-free: Lactose-free products contain animal milk without lactose. Milk, cheese, butter, or any dairy product labeled as lactose-free has its lactose removed or neutralized.

There are various reasons to go dairy-free: allergy, intolerance, personal, or ethical reasons. Vegans and ovo-vegetarians also have dairy products excluded from their diets.

Lactose Intolerance

Lactose intolerance is a condition manifesting with digestive symptoms: such as bloating, abdominal pain, flatulence, and diarrhea.

Around 68% of the world's population has lactose intolerance; however, not everyone has symptoms (1).

Lactose is a milk sugar digested by an enzyme called lactase. People with lactose intolerance have primary or secondary lactase deficiency, leading to undigested lactose. The lactose stays in the digestive system and gets fermented by bacteria causing various gases and leading to the symptoms mentioned above (2, 3).

Milk Allergy

Milk allergy is an immune response caused by milk proteins, whey, and casein. In most cases, people develop allergic reactions to both proteins.

The second time milk proteins enter the body, they trigger an immune response and cause many chemicals to be released, causing allergy signs and symptoms.

Milk allergy symptoms may manifest as hives, wheezing, itching, swelling, vomiting, and anaphylaxis or be predominantly digestive, such as diarrhea, cramps, and bloody stools (4).


Lactose intolerance or milk allergy in breastfed infants is another reason to stop eating dairy temporarily.

Human breast milk contains lactose, and breastfed infants with lactose intolerance may cry and be irritated, fail to gain weight, settle at feeding times, and have abdominal swelling, diarrhea, and red and swollen skin in places.

Cow's milk protein occurs in dairy-consuming humans and may lead to allergic reactions in sensitized infants. Symptoms may include skin reactions (rash, hives, eczema, redness, and swelling around the mouth), hay fever-like symptoms (runny or blocked nose, sneezing, red itchy eyes), and digestive problems (stomach pain, vomiting, diarrhea, or persisting constipation, failure to gain weight) (5, 6).


Foods to Avoid on a Dairy-Free Diet

Dairy products: Animal milk, condensed, evaporated, powdered milk, buttermilk, cheese, butter, yogurt, kefir, ice cream, whipped, and sour cream.

Foods made from milk: baked goods, salad dressings, and mayonnaise; milkshakes, hot cocoa, sherbet; candies such as caramel or chocolate; some pieces of bread and crackers; high-protein breakfast cereals, some instant coffees, vegetable spreads, creamed potatoes, and desserts such as cake or puddings, etc.

Foods that may contain dairy: brown sugar, dark chocolate, caramel flavoring, other natural or artificial flavorings, high protein flour, luncheon meat, hot dog, sausage, and margarine (7).

Ingredients to look for in a dairy-free diet and avoid:

  • Milk byproducts
  • Artificial butter flavor
  • Butter, butter fat or oil, ghee
  • Derivative, malted, condensed, evaporated, or dry milk
  • Cheese powder
  • Casein, casein hydrolysates, caseinates
  • Curd
  • Whey
  • Nisin
  • Lactose, lactoglobulin, lactoferrin, lactulose
  • Cream, artificial cream
  • Custard


Health Benefits of a Dairy-free Diet

Dairy-free diet may improve digestion and mental health, aid weight loss, and clear the skin; on another hand, it may lead to nutrient deficiency.

  • Improved digestion: By eliminating dairy, lactose intolerant individuals can eliminate symptoms (such as bloating and flatulence) associated with their condition.
  • Weight loss: Some dairy products are not particularly low in calories, and cutting dairy out may benefit weight loss. One serving (½ cup, 66g) of vanilla ice cream provides 137 calories; 1 tbsp (14.2) of butter provides 102 calories; one slice (1oz or 28g) of cheddar cheese provides 113 calories.
  • Healthier skin: Milk (but not milkshakes, cheese, or yogurt) may be the main reason or one of the reasons for acne breakouts or worsened acne. One of the theories is milk-induced inflammation and clogged pores leading to acne (8, 9). Many individuals have reported having healthier and clearer skin after going dairy-free.
  • Improved mental health: Some studies suggest eliminating dairy from the diet benefits mental health; nevertheless, others either find no associations or suggest consuming dairy is beneficial for mental health (10, 11, 12, 13).


Health Risks of a Dairy-free Diet

The only potential risk of a daily-free diet is nutrient deficiency. The nutrients and their alternative sources:

  • Protein: meat, eggs, fish, marmite, tofu, edamame, tempeh, legumes and beans, nuts
  • Calcium: sardines, salmon with bones, leafy greens, milk substitutes, soy products, and fortified food
  • Vitamin D: UV rays, fatty fish, red meat, egg yolks, and fortified foods
  • Vitamin B12: meat, eggs, fish, nutritional yeast
  • Iodine: seaweed (nori, kelp), fish, eggs, iodized salt, and bread
  • Zinc: meat, seafood, legumes, beans, and nuts
  • Probiotics: kimchi, kombucha, fermented pickles, olives, apple cider vinegar, sauerkraut, kvass.



  4. Cows milk protein allergy - immediate and delayed symptoms
  5. Cows' milk allergies and lactose intolerance in children
  8. Diet and acne: a review of the evidence
Article author photo Arpi Gasparyan
Education: General Medicine at YSMU
Last updated: August 07, 2023
Medically reviewed by Igor Bussel
Data provided by should be considered and used as information only. Please consult your physician before beginning any diet.