One of the most common things I hear from people wanting to transition to more plant-based eating is, “How do I give up cheese?!”. I get it. I am a recovering cheese-aholic. Luckily I have found that it isn’t as hard as I thought it would be. For those of you that have decided to give up dairy, or cut back on it substantially, this post will help guide you on that journey.
Why give up dairy?
In a previous post on the question Does Dairy Cause Cancer?, I mention some large studies linking dairy to the risk of prostate cancer and cheese to the risk of colorectal cancer. There are also links in the literature to an increase in insulin like growth factor (IGF-1) and breast cancer and prostate cancer risk. Dairy is linked to an increase in IGF-1. See my blog post above for more information and references to the research studies. There are many other potential concerns for dairy which have been nicely summarized by NutritionFacts.org.
Some people have decided to remove dairy from their diet given these potential risks. If that is you, this post is to help you make that change. This post does not suggest that there is a definitive link between dairy and cancer. I encourage you to come to your own conclusion based on your own research.
Do we need dairy?
First off, let me be clear that I am not a nutritionist. I am a biomedical engineer and I am very good at reviewing research and understanding credibility of information presented to me. I do extensive research on what information is out there, summarize what I find, and point you to the people and resources that seem most credible.
The argument for the need for dairy typically revolves around Calcium. Everyone needs Calcium in their diet. Do we need to drink milk to get calcium? The short answer is no. You can get plenty of calcium from a whole food plant-based diet.
I found a good review article written by the Founding Director of the UC Davis Integrative Medicine program. Here is a high level summary of the article: Animals get their calcium from consuming plants. Plant-based sources of calcium include broccoli, dark leafy greens (i,e, kale), beans, oranges, and many more. We get plenty of calcium from a whole food plant-based diet. High quantity of salt, too much caffeine, and not enough vitamin D can all lead to reduced calcium levels in our bodies.
What are milk substitutes?
Nut based milks are a great substitute for milk and are pretty easy to find these days. There are also ice-cream and yogurts made from nut milk in most grocery stores. Be careful and make sure to check the label to see if you understand the ingredients. Some dairy-free products will contain additional ingredients like sunflower oil which is likely not healthy.
If I don’t understand an ingredient I do a quick search online to see if there is any discussion around that ingredient. For example, carrageenan is a common additive and has inconclusive but potentially concerning research beginning to surface. I make my own almond milk and it is actually really easy and fun. The recipe is part of my dairy free guide at the bottom of this post.
What are cheese substitutes?
Cashew cheese is a great alternative! I make a bunch of it and keep it my fridge to use throughout the week. The recipe I use is in my guide at the bottom of the post. Nutritional Yeast is also nice to sprinkle on your dish for a little cheesy flavor.
You can also replace cheese with foods that have a similar taste profile. Cheese has a savory (“umami”) taste, so you can look for other foods to satisfy that urge. I love One Green Planet‘s suggestions: Toasted nuts and seeds, cumin, smoked paprika, seaweed, mushrooms, tempeh.
Other alternatives are focused on the specific way that you eat the cheese. For example, I used to eat a lot of cheese and crackers. My alternatives are snacky type foods like: Grain crackers with humus or bean dip; pesto and/or avocado on sprouted grain toast or brown rice cakes; carrots and hummus; mixed nuts; edamame.
What are butter substitutes?
Butter is mostly used while cooking. Avocado oil is one alternative to cooking with butter (see my post on oils here). Olive oil can be used as a dressing option. You can also sautée using veggie broth or water if you want to avoid oil. I avoid the non-dairy butter options in the grocery store as many of them are highly processed with a lot of potentially concerning ingredients.
“But I thought I heard that Ghee and saturated fat was good for you?” This is a hot topic and I am going to let Dr. Greger with NutritionFacts.org tackle this one for me.
Is dairy addictive?
This is another hotly debated subject. Dr. Neal Barnard recently published a book talking about the potential addictive properties of dairy. I have not yet read the book, but Dr. Barnard is the head of the Physician’s Committee for Responsible Medicine and is on my “trusted” list of experts.
What about eggs?
Eggs aren’t dairy, silly! For some reason it is common for us to lump eggs into the dairy category (maybe because they are with dairy in the grocery store?). For more info on other animal products check out my blog post here.
Where is dairy hiding?
Many processed foods have dairy products in them. Look for less obvious ingredients such as lactose (and ingredients starting with “lacto” or “lacta”), cream, whey, and casein (or caseinates).
It is important to note that even processed foods labeled “non-dairy” are still allowed to contain dairy proteins like casein or whey. In this case, it is required the “a milk derivative” be added next to that ingredient. Additionally, according to the FDA, if a product contains milk protein, it is required to list “milk” under the allergens. The terms “vegan” and “dairy free” do not have regulations around them, so check the label to be sure.
Many foods in restaurants are cooked with butter, so be sure to ask if you are avoiding butter. I was recently enjoying some edamame and raving over the mystery sauce. Halfway through it occurred to me that they were drenched in butter. I hadn’t had butter in so long that I didn’t recognize the flavor. Hah! I never said it didn’t taste good.
But HOW do we give it up?! Here are 10 steps.
- Change your mindset. This is probably the most important step. This is not about deprivation. Deprivation is living in poverty and not having access to the food you need to survive. For most of us reading this post, this is not the case. Instead of focusing on the loss of dairy, focus on the abundance of all of the other food choices you will now be able to explore. Focus on the fact that you are taking charge of your health.
- Identify the type of dairy that seems the hardest to give up and start with that. For me, that was cheese and crackers. Extra sharp cheddar cheese with crackers was my favorite go-to snack.
- Come up with clear alternatives. What can you have instead of this to still feel satisfied? I literally sat down and wrote out other snacks I could have, bought those foods, and kept the list in my kitchen.
- Set goals for yourself. First off, ask yourself if you are the type of person that does best with gradual change, or are you an all or nothing type person? All or nothing type people typically need to quit something cold turkey. Set a date and prepare for that date by practicing and planning your alternative choices. For the more gradual change people, set specific milestones for each week.
- Have convenient healthy foods available. It is not enough to identify healthy foods. You need to have it in your house and available when the craving strikes. If you decide you want to make things like cashew cheese, get in the habit of making it every week on a certain day.
- Don’t have temptations in the house. If possible, remove all temptations from your house. This is obviously harder if you have other people eating dairy in the house. See the next step if this is the case.
- Get your spouse/partner/roommate onboard to help support you. Better yet, find someone to do it with you! If your partner is constantly tempting you with your favorite dairy foods, it is going to be that much harder to turn to alternatives. Even if your partner is not planning to make the same change, explain why the change is important to you and what they can do to support you.
- Give it time. Your cravings will die down over time. In my experience, I still love the taste of cheese, but I no longer crave it. I am just as happy with my alternative choices. I do not feel deprived in the slightest bit. This is coming from a former cheese-a-holic!
- Avoid the processed dairy alternatives. If you don’t understand what the ingredients are, skip it. Manufacturers have gotten really good at processing foods to taste like dairy, but that doesn’t mean it’s healthy. Stick to organic and products with minimal amounts of ingredients that are from whole food sources.
- Still think you will DIE without cheese/pizza/ice-cream/your favorite dairy treat? Think of it as a delicacy. Save it for special occasions a couple times a year and then savor every bite of it!
CAUTION: Be smart about the dairy alternatives you use. Check the labels and don’t go for the highly processed “dairy-free” foods. Also, alternate your sources of dairy alternatives so that you are not loading up on any one thing, like soy (As long as we stay under 5 servings a day, soy appears to have a protective effect against cancer. Since many vegetarian and vegan processed foods contain soy, it is important to pay attention to how many servings we are having each day)
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