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When transitioning to a vegan or plant-based diet, dairy is one thing many people struggle to eliminate. Ditching cheese can be particularly difficult! Oliviarjohnson requested I write a post on giving up dairy, so here it is. I’ll briefly discuss the reasons for avoiding dairy, before outlining some strategies for weaning yourself off it. Here goes!
Why ditch dairy?
The animal rights reasons for ditching dairy are powerful. Briefly, farmers must separate calves from their mothers very young so humans can take the milk. This is very distressing for both mother and calf. Male calves are a “by-product”, and so are often raised for veal or shot shortly after birth. Dairy cows are killed at a fraction of their natural lifespan when they stop producing enough milk.
Viva! have a more detailed guide on the suffering endured by dairy cows.
Environmentally, dairy production is both inefficient and unsustainable. It requires huge quantities of grain and water, and cows generate masses of waste which pollutes the environment.
Finally, from a health perspective, dairy is a disaster. Humans have no need to drink milk after weaning. No other animal does so, and most of the world is lactose-intolerant. Furthermore, casein (milk protein) is the most relevant cancer promoter ever discovered.
Dairy contains high levels of oestrogen. This can contribute to breast and prostate cancers. Consuming dairy raises IGF-1 levels, which again increases your risk of developing cancer. Dairy has even been linked to MS and Type 1 diabetes, not to mention allergies. In short, you’ll probably feel far better if you give it up. My mum recently started limiting her dairy intake after experiencing severe headaches, and she saw a huge improvement. Try it for yourself.
What about calcium?
Everyone always says we need milk to build strong bones. But dairy seems to have a neutral or even negative effect on fracture rates, rates of osteoporosis, and overall mortality.
Though dairy contains a lot of calcium, it may not be as well-absorbed as that in leafy greens. Beans, leafy greens and nuts are good sources of calcium. Milk alternatives are often fortified with calcium too.
Get motivated to ditch dairy
How you convince yourself to make the change depends on your motivation. If you’re doing it for the cows, read up on the dairy industry. I’ve previously written an article on the cruel practices which are perfectly legal in the British dairy industry. I’ve embedded videos in the post showing farmers carrying these practices out. Watch them, if you can possibly bring yourself to do so. That glass of milk may suddenly seem significantly less appealing.
Note: if you’re in the EU, practices will be similar. Things in the US are even worse. So don’t kid yourself that your country has better welfare standards – it probably doesn’t. Besides, there’s no ethical way to exploit sentient beings.
Try the alternatives
Once you’re convinced that ditching dairy is the right thing to do, it’s time to dip your toes in the water (or the almond milk!). Depending on your personality, you can either replace one thing at a time or everything at once.
There are so many options these days that finding substitutes you like shouldn’t be too big a challenge. Have fun trying all the different plant milks – there’s soya, rice, oat, coconut, almond, hemp, cashew, hazelnut and many more. Even if you have allergies, you should be able to find something suitable. Don’t get caught out by lactose-free milk – it’s just cows’ milk with the lactose removed.
You can even make your own plant milks – it’s a lot of fun and you can tailor the ingredients to your liking.
Soya yoghurt is widely available, and there are coconut-based options coming out. Try dairy-free margarine instead of butter.
Dairy-free ice cream can be a little pricey, but you can always view it as an occasional treat. In the UK, the Alpro and Swedish Glace brands are reasonably priced and available in large supermarkets. You can also buy frozen coconut yoghurt. And there’s always banana ice cream.
Everything you can think of – custard, cream and so on – has a dairy-free alternative. Options will vary depending on where you live, so see what’s out there.
But what about cheese?!
For many people, this is the million-dollar question. And it’s hardly surprising, given that cheese is mildly addictive – it contains casomorphines, designed to keep the calf coming back for more.
Rest assured, you can give up cheese. There are plenty of alternatives out there. You may have tried vegan cheese before and disliked it. But some brands are definitely better than others, so sample lots of different ones. In The UK, Sainsbury’s and Tesco have affordable ones. I especially love Tesco’s jalapeno chilli and smoky flavours.
Cream cheese alternatives are usually pretty good. Again, I recommend the Sainsbury’s and Tesco ones. You can also make your own cashew spread.
You can make your own hard cheeses too; most recipes are nut-based. There are tons of them out there, so do some Googling.
Also, get some nutritional yeast. It has a cheesy, savoury taste which makes it great for “cheese” sauces. You can also sprinkle it on your pasta instead of cheese.
If you like your fancy cheeses, there are lots of smaller companies making artisan “cheese”. There are alternatives to Brie, Camembert and many more. My cheese-loving friend tried some of them and couldn’t tell the difference. See what’s available in your area, or look online.
The longer you go without eating dairy cheese, the less you’ll miss it – I promise!
What about foods containing milk?
It’s frustrating how many prepackaged foods contain dairy – often unnecessarily. But there are also a number of “accidentally vegan” ones which don’t. So do check the ingredients – you may be surprised.
For example, many types of biscuit in the UK are vegan. Ginger nuts, bourbons, digestives and Nice biscuits often don’t contain milk. Many bakery products are vegan, including the Co-op’s jam and custard doughnuts and fruit pies. And some random things like garlic bread can be vegan, depending on the brand.
For pastry, creamy sauces, salad cream and treat foods, check the Free From section. You can even get dairy-free “milk” and white chocolate, chocolate chip cookies and jam tarts. Going dairy-free doesn’t mean missing out on anything. It may mean doing more cooking yourself, however.
Substituting dairy in cooking
In cooking, you can often just replace dairy with the vegan alternative. But there are a few other tricks it’s helpful to know. For example, you can use tofu to make cheesecake or “halloumi”. You can also blend up cashews to make creamy sauces. Oil works fine instead of butter in cakes and pastries. Canned coconut milk is also great for creamy sauces, and you can whip it in place of whipped cream. I also use it to make cake frostings and chocolate pudding. Search for vegan versions of your favourite recipes and you’ll find loads of clever ideas. There are far too many to list here.
This is likely to be your biggest challenge, but it’s getting easier all the time. Many places now offer vegan cheese on pizza, and tomato pasta is usually a safe bet. Asian cuisine tends to use very little dairy – just watch out for ghee in Indian cooking. Even unlikely places like Wetherspoons and Harvester are offering vegan options now.
If unsure, it’s best to check the menu online beforehand, or ring up and ask if they can cater to you. In the unlikely event that you end up somewhere with no dairy-free mains, try getting a collection of sides. Most places also offer a vegan dessert, though it may just be sorbet or fruit salad. It can be a bit sucky watching your friends eat cake, but you can always treat yourself when you get home.
Going dairy-free can seem daunting, but ease into it and you’ll likely find it simpler than you thought. Try it out, and feel free to get in touch with me if you’re struggling with anything. However, I am away at the moment so it may take me a while to get to any messages. Good luck!