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Dairy-free diet and deficiencies

Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen MartinReviewed on 19.10.2023 | 3 minutes read
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A healthy balanced diet means eating from a variety of food groups to gain the nutrients we need for functioning at our best. We may choose to exclude a particular food group for any number of reasons – faith or religious beliefs, health beliefs, ethical or green reasons, or we may have an allergy or intolerance.

Nutrients come in six categories: carbohydrates, protein, fiber, vitamins, minerals, and fat. The main food groups include simple and complex sugars, fruit and vegetables, meat, fish, dairy, nuts, and pulses. Excluding any food group can put us at risk of a deficiency, but armed with information, we can source the right foods and supplements to keep us healthy.

Doctor’s advice

What deficiencies do I risk if I avoid dairy?

Excluding dairy products – butter, milk, yogurt, and cheese – cuts out sources of calcium, which makes healthy bones and teeth, and protein, providing the building blocks of our body. They also provide fat, which we all need in moderation to provide us with energy.

Our bodies need an ongoing supply of calcium as it’s continuously used up, so we need to replace it. Food is the best way to do this. Vitamin D is a vital component to ensuring calcium is absorbed and working optimally, so make sure you’re soaking up the sunshine or taking supplements, especially in winter.

Do eggs count as dairy?

Eggs are not considered a dairy product and don’t contain lactose, which is good news if you’re lactose-intolerant, as they're a good source of calcium and protein. But if you’re choosing a dairy-free diet for ethical or lifestyle reasons, you may decide against eating eggs. Bony fish can be a good source of nutrients, such as tinned sardines or tinned salmon, where the bones are so tiny that you don’t really notice them.

If fish isn’t an option for you, most fruit and vegetables contain some calcium – oranges and dried fruit will serve you best, plus leafy green vegetables like broccoli, cabbage, and kale. Sesame seeds and certain nuts – almonds, hazelnuts, and Brazil nuts – contain some calcium and are also rich in protein.

Do they add nutrients to food?

Look out for signs of "fortified with calcium", for example on some breakfast cereals or bread. Dairy alternatives such as rice milk, oat milk, soya milk, soya yogurts, or tofu (made with soya), may also have been enriched with calcium: it should tell you on the label. You would need about a pint of this a day to adequately top your calcium stores up.

If it’s hard work getting enough calcium from your food, calcium supplements are available. You can also get them combined with vitamin D, which works in tandem with calcium to help maintain strong and healthy bones.

Do I need a blood test?

If you are seeking sources of calcium and other nutrients from food and supplements, you don’t need a blood test to continue with a dairy-free diet. If you have any symptoms or medical conditions that may put you at risk, you should discuss these with your doctor, who may order tests, including a blood test and bone scan.

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This article has been written by UK-based doctors and pharmacists, so some advice may not apply to US users and some suggested treatments may not be available. For more information, please see our T&Cs.
Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed on 19.10.2023
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