The Dairy-Free Diet – Diets on Trial

Dairy free diet
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Eating smarter will help you hit your health and fitness goals faster – but which diet is the ideal one for you? Coach’s sister title Men’s Fitness assesses the evidence and asks the experts so you can make the right nutritional decisions

The Theory

Simply cutting out milk-based animal products, including cheese, butter, cream and yogurt. The rationale behind it is that a significant percentage of the population are intolerant to lactose – a form of sugar that makes up the majority of the carbohydrates in dairy foods – and this can cause everything from digestive problems to acne.

There’s also the ethical side: most dairy cows are forced to be impregnated every year to maintain milk yields, and they’re often confined to cramped stalls and slaughtered before the age of five. Even if you aren’t a card-carrying PETA member, it’s worth being concerned about the effect an unhealthy environment and a cocktail of antibiotics might have on your morning cuppa.

The Evidence

If you’re un-moo-ved (sorry) by ethical arguments, then it’s worth experimenting to see whether you’re genuinely lactose intolerant. Though it can affect up to 90% of the population in some countries, it’s much less prevalent in northern Europe where an ability to digest milk was a distinct evolutionary advantage. To find out, try a stripped-down version of the “elimination” diet: cut out dairy for 30 days, then slowly reintroduce different foods and see if you feel sluggish/bloated/worse.

The Good

It’s never been easier to do: almond, rice and coconut milk are all viable alternatives, and now widely available. It’s also worth noting – if you love cheese and you’re not in it to make the cows happy – that harder cheeses like parmesan and aged gouda, naturally eliminate a lot of lactose during the manufacturing process.

The Bad

Soy, often touted as the protein-rich vegan alternative to dairy, is contentious because it contains phytoestrogens that can interfere with hormone production. Though it’s fine in small quantities, “regularly exceeding three servings a day may not be a good idea,” says Ryan Andrews of Precision Nutrition.

Also, avoiding yogurt, cheese and cornershop-fave kefir can deprive you of bacteria that improves gut health – you’ll need to get it elsewhere, which means upping your intake of fermented foods. Hope you like sauerkraut.

Eat More Of These

There are many direct replacements for common dairy foods widely available nowadays. The variety of milks alone is staggering – nut, soya, rice and coconut milks are all easy to find. You can also find vegan yogurt, cheese and spreads, and even ice cream. If you are going to go dairy-free, though, you need to ensure you get enough calcium in your diet. Green leafy vegetables such as kale and broccoli, canned fish, nuts, seeds, dried fruit and pulses all contain good amounts of calcium, and there are foods fortified with the stuff available too.

Avoid These

Well, dairy foods. How strict you are is up to you. If you are worried about lactose intolerance related to specific products then you might only eliminate those when you identify the ones causing issues, or you can go the whole hog and strip dairy from your diet completely.

The Expert Verdict

Unless you have an intolerance, there’s not likely to be any real benefit to going dairy-free, says dietitian Chloe Miles of the British Dietetic Association. “Some people have to be dairy-free due to allergies or intolerances, but there is no evidence that cutting out this food group would aid weight loss. Dairy is a great source of calcium which is important for healthy bones. You can get enough calcium on a dairy-free diet, but it requires careful planning.”

Joel Snape

From 2008 to 2018, Joel worked for Men's Fitness, which predated, and then shared a website with, Coach. Though he spent years running the hills of Bath, he’s since ditched his trainers for a succession of Converse high-tops, since they’re better suited to his love of pulling vans, lifting cars, and hefting logs in a succession of strongman competitions.