Dairy-Free Diets Are Packed with Nutrients

Dairy-Free Diets Are Packed with Nutrients

By |2012-01-23T16:16:14+00:00January 23rd, 2012|Tags: , |19 Comments

A study published in the scientific journal Nutrition Research last November looked at the effects on nutrient intake when dairy foods are reduced or removed from the diet. Rather than focusing just on calcium—which is easily found in other foods—the researchers looked at several nutrients that are abundant in dairy products. They concluded that even when “calcium-replacement foods” provided the same amounts of calcium as dairy products, they fell short on other nutrients that milk provides.

This study was funded by the National Dairy Council and administered by the Dairy Research Institute. Two of the researchers work for the Dairy Research Institute. I don’t generally get too excited about sources of funding for nutrition research because they don’t affect the findings. They can affect how those findings are interpreted, though. Needless to say, I have a pretty different perspective from these researchers. But even so, I feel confident that the data fall in favor of plant sources of calcium.

Using both the USDA’s MyPyramid (the research was done before the release of MyPlate), and data from the NHANES study (a national survey of food intake), the researchers looked at what happens when you replace a serving of a dairy “composite” (a mixed serving of milk, cheese and other dairy foods) with a nondairy “composite” that provides an equivalent amount of calcium. The nondairy composite consisted of 71% fortified orange juice, 18% fortified soy milk, 10.5% leafy greens, and 0.5% fish with bones, reflecting average contribution of these foods to American diets.

So what happens when you replace dairy with this assortment of foods? Intake of protein, certain B-vitamins, phosphorus, and zinc drop. However, all were still high enough to meet the RDAs, with the exception of zinc which was marginally low. (Vitamin D was low in both the dairy-rich and dairy-free diets.)

Here are some other things that happened when dairy products were replaced with nondairy foods. The amount of saturated fat and sodium both dropped. And the amounts of vitamin A, potassium, and magnesium all increased. The study didn’t analyze vitamin C, vitamin K, iron or fiber, none of which are found in dairy products and all of which would be provided by the nondairy composite.

So we can flip this around and look at the effects of replacing plant sources of calcium with dairy foods: Doing so causes a drop in fiber, vitamins A, C, and K, and in the minerals potassium, magnesium and iron. Vitamins C and K, and potassium and magnesium are all important for bone health, by the way.

Had the study been done in lacto-ovo vegetarians it would have shown that those who remove dairy foods from their diet need to identify good sources of zinc and vitamin B12. But we know that, and we all—hopefully—make sure we are finding other ways to include these nutrients in our diets.

This research confirms that milk and other dairy products have nothing to offer that you can’t get elsewhere. And so there is never any reason to participate in the suffering that lies behind milk production.


Reference: Fulgoni VL, 3rd, Keast DR, Auestad N, Quann EE. Nutrients from dairy foods are difficult to replace in diets of Americans: food pattern modeling and an analyses of the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey 2003-2006. Nutr Res 2011;31:759-65.


  1. Frank January 23, 2012 at 5:49 pm - Reply

    Wow, this was a very interesting analysis that we should all keep in mind when reading these studies. Thanks for revealing this information Ginny.

  2. vegobsessionchick January 24, 2012 at 6:53 pm - Reply

    Thank you for this post. I hope more people will start to realize that dairy is not necessary….

    • Robert March 21, 2012 at 3:45 pm - Reply

      It isn’t necessary but it sure can be a hard habit to kick. At least, it was/is for me. Anyone else have a hard time dropping dairy and in particular cheese?

      • M C October 7, 2013 at 9:05 am - Reply

        I used to love cheese and it was hard to give up at first. Some of the vegan fake cheeses are ok for transitioning, especially for use in recipes like mac & cheese. You can also make your own nut cheeses.

        Now that I’m off cheese I don’t miss it; I enjoy the foods I have chosen to eat, and if I ever wanted something cheesy I’d find a vegan recipe for it.

  3. Lisa F. (The Valley Vegan) January 25, 2012 at 8:29 pm - Reply

    Many people crinkle their noses at me when I say that calcium (which is the ONLY thing they ever point out to me that I’m “lacking” for not eating dairy) is readily available in plant sources & fortified products like orange juice & soy milk. It’s not that *they* don’t, can’t or won’t believe me, but that the dairy machine has been incredibly successful in convincing them that dairy is the only way that they can’t consider any other possibilities. Sad, but it leaves us a great opportunity to inform our non-veg counterparts.

    As always: great article!

  4. Steve January 29, 2012 at 1:19 am - Reply

    I note that iodine didn’t get a mention. My understanding is that here in the UK, dairy is an important source of iodine because we don’t have iodised salt; so if you drop dairy you need to take measures to ensure you replace the lost iodine. Mind you, the iodine is derived from the cleaning agents used so it’s not exactly the most wholesome source and I’m happy to get my daily hit from something other than a disinfectant.

    Of course this is the web, so I could be completely wrong so please correct me if I’m off base.

    • Ginny Messina January 30, 2012 at 9:42 am - Reply

      You’re right that iodine intake definitely can drop when people replace dairy with plant foods–I forgot about that. And it’s definitely an issue in Europe. I’m with you, though–would prefer to get my iodine from something other than disinfectant. 🙂

      • Robert March 21, 2012 at 3:48 pm - Reply

        Nothing a good multi-vitamin/mineral supplement or iodised salt can’t fix. ;o)

  5. Dairy Nutrition January 30, 2012 at 8:01 am - Reply

    […] that you should take them with a grain of salt. Or quinoa. ANYWAY. The Vegan R.D., Ginny Messina, turned this study on its head, and her interpretation of the data is very interesting: Here are some other things that happened […]

  6. […] that we should take them with a pellet of salt. Or quinoa. ANYWAY. The Vegan R.D., Ginny Messina, turned this investigate on a head, and her interpretation of a information is really interesting: Here are some other things that […]

  7. […] milk, plant-based calcium sources contain vitamins C and K and the minerals potassium and magnesium, which are all important for bone health. Next time someone asks you where you get your calcium, […]

  8. […] Messina RD posted a blog entry describing a study funded by the National Dairy Council about what would happen if, sort of, if […]

  9. Rebecca February 4, 2012 at 12:46 pm - Reply

    One thing that I never see mentioned much, but which made a huge difference in my life when I replaced dairy with plant foods, is the reduction in mucus formation. I used to have a stuffy nose almost all the time, and endured at least two colds per year. Since I became a vegan, ALL that is gone, and I’ve not had one serious illness. Has anyone else experienced this?

    • Lam July 20, 2013 at 12:19 pm - Reply

      Hi Rebecca
      Totally agree withyou on this. Been a vegetarian diet for years. Decided to cut down the dairy significantly and as a result the ashtma and mucas also decreased significantly.
      Lam – Sydney

  10. […] Afraid! Dairy Industry Launches Ad Campaign Dissing Plant-based Milks Guide: Plant-based Milks Dairy-Free Diets Are Packed with Nutrients by Ginny Messina Wear Your Soy Milk Mustache for Vitamin D Day!  by Ginny Messina Got apology? […]

  11. Peadar March 9, 2012 at 3:08 am - Reply

    Hi there, I recently devoured your “Vegan For Life” Book and want to thank you for it.

    I was wondering re: the replacement of dairy, if probiotics, “live cultures” etc. have, or need to have any part to play in a vegan or an non-vegan diet? If we need them, where should we get them?

    If you have time to answer, thanks a lot,


    • M C October 7, 2013 at 8:44 am - Reply

      I would guess that the need for them would vary on an individual basis.

      Two food sources would be fermented vegetables and unpasteurized miso/tamari.

  12. […] The plant foods that provide calcium also happen to provide many other compounds that are good for bones and that are not found in […]

  13. […] just a great marketing effort by the dairy industry. These benefits can be achieved through eating other foods. A great and more bioavailable source of calcium can be found in kale or other green, leafy […]

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