How to balance your diet without dairy

Feb 26, 2010 at 7:15 a.m. ET

Whether you give up dairy as a dietary choice, for ethical reasons or due to a medical condition, you must find nutritionally equivalent substitutes that replace the lost nutrients -- and that can seamlessly stand in for dairy products in everyday cooking. Giving up dairy can seem daunting at first, but there are many delicious and nutritious dairy replacements that make dairy-free living an easy endeavor. Here’s how to balance your diet without dairy.

Woman with bowl of almonds

Replacing dairy in your diet

Though eliminating any food group from your diet can cause nutritional deficiencies,  going dairy-free doesn't have to mean your family's health will suffer. The essential nutrients found in dairy products, such as calcium, vitamin D, riboflavin, phosphorus, vitamin B12 and protein, are available in many non-dairy foods, as well.

Before you start a dairy-free regimen, consult with your doctor or a nutritionist to get the best advice on dairy-free living for you and your family. Additionally, if dairy products -- milk, cream, butter, yogurt and cheese -- have played a major role in your everyday cooking, you'll have to do some culinary experimention to find acceptable dairy substitutes. A growing array of delicious and functional dairy replacements

Nondairy sources of calcium

Dairy and calcium are practically synonomous, and restricting milk, yogurt, cheese and regular ice cream from your diet can set you up for a calcium deficiency. However, you can get enough of this bone-building mineral with calcium-fortified foods, nondairy food sources and supplements. Common calcium-fortified products include almond milk, soy milk, breakfast cereals and even some fruit juices. Read labels to find the foods and drinks with the most calcium. Nondairy foods that provide calcium include leafy greens, legumes, tofu, some fish and even almonds. Talk to your doctor about proper supplementation for you and your family.

How much calcium do women need?

Getting enough vitamin D

Vitamin D, also called the sunshine vitamin because your body manufactures its own vitamin D with sun exposure, is another nutrient that is essential for bone health, but this vitamin also plays a crucial role in protecting you from depression, autoimmune disorders, some forms of cancer, heart disease and diabetes. Further, adequate vitamin D intake is a natural remedy for PMS. In addition to getting 15 minutes of sun exposure each day, including nondairy foods such as eggs, fish, fortified cereals, cod liver and fortified almond and soy milks (be sure to read labels to find the brands with the most vitamin D) can give you the vitamin D you need. If you are concerned about deficiency, talk to your health care professional about vitamin D supplementation.

Why you need more vitamin D

Rev up your riboflavin intake

The riboflavin you'll miss from eliminating dairy from your diet is easy to acquire in other foods that you likely already eat. Riboflavin, or vitamin B2, plays an important role in metabolism, keeping you energized, skin health and warding off premature aging. You can find riboflavin in fortified cereals, sweet potatoes, asparagus, spinach, mushrooms, rasberries and meats.

The importance of riboflavin

Nondairy foods rich in phosphorus

Though milk is an excellent source of phosphorous, a mineral needed for bone health and regulating cell function, nondairy sources include eggs, meat, fish, legumes and whole grain breads.

Tips for strong bones

Up your vitamin B12 intake

Dairy and other animal-derived foods are rich in vitamin B12, a vitamin required for proper red blood cell formation, heart and brain health, neurological functioning, metabolism and DNA synthesis. If you are following a dairy-free diet, you'll have no problem consuming enough vitamin B12 through eggs, meat, fish and poultry. If you are following a strict vegetarian or vegan diet, you can find vitamin B12 in fortified cereals, fermented foods, such as tempeh, and tofu.

The vitamin B12 basics

Pump up your protein

Dairy products, such as milk, yogurt and cheese, are good dietary sources of protein. However, if you eat eggs, meat, fish and poultry, you'll have no problem getting enough of this muscle-building nutrient. Vegetarian and vegan sources of protein include edamame (fresh soy beans), tofu, soy milk, legumes, quinoa, whole grain breads and nuts, such as almonds.

The truth about protein in your diet

Balancing your diet without dairy may seem daunting initially, but incorporating nondairy foods that provide the same nutrients in your everyday meals will ensure your family is consuming the vitamins and minerals they need for overall health.