As it comes from cows, milk has many nutrients. After all, its natural purpose is for the development of calves, just as breast milk is intended for the development of human babies. And in today’s society, dairy milk is often used as a nutritional shortcut for kids and adults. Some people actually have diets so reliant on dairy, that simply removing it can cause deficiencies. So how do you get proper nutrients without dairy? Do you need supplements on a dairy-free diet? Fortunately, a little planning and dietary shuffling can help fill in the nutritional gaps without too much fuss.
How to Get the Healthy Nutrients in Milk on a Dairy-Free Diet
Many people report feeling “detox symptoms” when they cut out dairy, or say they feel worse on a dairy-free diet. But in cases where people merely cut out dairy foods, and don’t replace them with foods that fulfill essential nutrients, these might actually be low nutrient or deficiency symptoms.
Deficiencies can lead to all types of symptoms, ranging from skin issues to digestive complaints to fatigue, and can become serious. So it’s important to address them early with your doctor. Below, I have a basic guide to the macronutrients, vitamins, and minerals in milk, and tips to help ensure you still get all the nutrients you need on a dairy-free diet.
This post is for informational purposes only and should not be construed as medical or dietary advice. Always consult a physician before undergoing any change in diet.
Macronutrients in Milk
Milk isn’t considered a good carbohydrate source. The only carbohydrate in cow’s milk is milk sugar, otherwise known as lactose. But it does contain notable amounts of water, protein, and in some cases, fat, as outlined below.
Cow’s milk is approximately 88% water. This might sound obvious, but if you are a milk drinker, and cut it out, be sure to add another hydration source into your diet. A couple more glasses of water each day might cover it. See the 10 Warning Signs of Dehydration.
A glass of cow’s milk contains about 8 grams of protein, and more concentrated forms of dairy can contain more. If you are only cutting out dairy, and still eat meat, fish, and perhaps eggs, your diet is likely rich in enough protein. But if you are vegan, or following a high protein diet, you can look to sources like beans, lentils, nuts, seeds, and whole grains. Dairy-free protein powders are another way to augment your protein intake, if needed. See the Signs and Symptoms of Protein Deficiency.
Tips: For most people, getting enough protein at lunch or dinner is easy, but breakfast ends up becoming too carb heavy. If you aren’t a fan of eggs or breakfast meats, try enjoying nut butter on whole grain bread, or spiking your morning oatmeal with nuts and seeds. Dairy-free protein shakes are another favorite way to start the day.
A glass of milk has 0 to 8 grams of fat depending on the type (nonfat to whole). But other types of dairy can provide much more fat, like cream, butter, and cheese. On a dairy-free diet, fat sources shift to meat, fish, eggs, nuts, seeds, and oils. Certain fruits, like coconut and avocado, are also popular dairy-free sources of fats. Fats like these help to nourish our skin, joints, brain, and more. See the 5 Signs You’re Not Getting Enough Fat.
Tips: Avocado is a great stand-in for sour cream, atop chili, tacos, and other Mexican-inspired foods. You can also add avocado or guacamole to sandwiches and wraps. Full fat coconut milk can be used as a substitute for cream, and is also a delicious addition to smoothies and smoothie bowls. Mayonnaise is a naturally dairy-free staple, and many vegan mayos are available if you need egg-free, too.
Key Vitamins in Milk
The following micronutrients are listed in order of RDA percentages, starting with the heftiest first. A glass of milk isn’t a great source of the vitamins following vitamin B12. But if you consume quite a bit of dairy, you might be at least somewhat nutritionally reliant on dairy for all of these vitamins. For example, if you consume three glasses of milk per day, you are getting roughly 27% of the RDA for pantothenic acid from milk.
Vitamin B2 (Riboflavin)
Natural milk contains a fair amount of B vitamins, but about 38% of them are weakened or destroyed during pasteurization. Even so, cow’s milk can be a relatively good source of some B vitamins, like riboflavin. Riboflavin plays a vital role in energy production and in helping to maintain healthy organs. If you aren’t vegan, eggs, lean meats, and fish are good sources of riboflavin. For vegans, mushrooms, almonds, spinach and other greens offer a dose of riboflavin. See the NIH’s Information on Riboflavin Deficiency.
Tips: Before you consider supplementation, check your everyday foods for fortification. Tofu, nutritional yeast, breakfast cereals, and dairy alternatives are sometimes fortified with riboflavin. If a supplement is needed, speak to your doctor about individual vitamins versus a B-complex vitamin.
Contrary to popular belief, milk isn’t a great source of vitamin D. Milk naturally contains a small amount of this fat soluble hormone (yes, it’s a hormone!), but it’s removed with the fat in the production of reduced fat, low fat, and non-fat milks. Some dairy farmers choose to fortify with vitamin D, but it isn’t required. However, if they do choose to fortify, it must be at least 400 I.U. per quart.
Fortunately, vitamin D fortification has become common in dairy-free products, too, and vitamin D supplements are inexpensive options that many doctors recommend. Vitamin D is essential for bone health, immunity, heart health, and more. See the Symptoms of Vitamin D Deficiency.
Tips: The top source of vitamin D is the sun! See our post on Vitamin D for Dairy-Free Living for tips, information on vitamin D fortification, supplements, and more.
Vitamin B12 (Cobalamin)
This vitamin is a little trickier, particularly for vegetarians. Vitamin B12 naturally occurs in animals, not plants. “Just” dairy-free consumers can get plenty of vitamin B12 via meat, fish, and eggs, but vegans do need to find fortified sources and/or take supplements. Low vitamin B12 can lead to a condition called pernicious anemia. See the Signs and Symptoms of Vitamin B12 deficiency.
Tips: Nutritional yeast is a fortified source of vitamin B12, not a natural source. Consequently, not all brands of nutritional yeast contain cobalamin. If you are counting on nutritional yeast as a supplement, be sure to purchase a brand that is fortified with vitamin B12. Anthony’s, Bragg, Bob’s Red Mill, NOW, and Terrasoul are all good quality, amply fortified brands that tend to be sold for a fair price.
This is another fat soluble vitamin that is removed with the fat in the production of milk. But unlike vitamin D, dairy processors are required to fortify milk with a minimum of 300 I.U. per cup (10-12% of the RDA). Some processors opt to add as much as 500 I.U. per cup (16-22% of the RDA). Vitamin A supports our vision, healthy skin, reproduction, immunity, and more. See the Signs and Symptoms of Vitamin A Deficiency.
Tips: Vitamin A in the form of retinol is found in meats, fish, and eggs. But our bodies also convert carotenoids into vitamin A. Orange, red, yellow, and green fruits and vegetables are typically rich in carotenoids.
Vitamin B5 (Pantothenic Acid)
This vitamin helps to break down fats and also aids in energy conversion. Fortunately, it’s found in most plants and animals, so it’s fairly easy to obtain via a natural diet. Milk is a good source of pantothenic acid, but so are lean meats, fish, eggs, sweet potatoes, avocados, mushrooms, legumes, nuts, and seeds. See the Signs of Deficiency.
Tips: As with all B vitamins, check packaged foods in your cupboard for fortification. B5 isn’t supplemented as often as B2 or B12, but is still sometimes added in notable quantities to foods.
Top Minerals in Milk
I have listed the following in order of the RDA percentages found in milk, starting with the heftiest first. A glass of milk isn’t a great source of the minerals following phosphorous. But if you consume quite a bit of dairy, you might be at least somewhat nutritionally reliant on dairy for all of these minerals. For example, if you consume three glasses of milk per day, you are getting roughly 30% of the RDA for potassium from milk.
A single glass of milk typically contains just over 50% of the adult RDA for iodine, which is key for thyroid health. But seafood fans will be happy to know that most fish and shellfish are also good sources of iodine. Cod and scallops are particularly high in this mineral, and capable of fulfilling your entire RDA with normal portions. Non-fish eaters can enjoy seaweed – just one sheet of nori can fulfill up to 35% of the average daily need for iodine. Eggs and prunes are also good sources. Iodine is present in other plants and meats, but in very small amounts. In many countries, including the U.S. and Canada, salt is iodized to avoid deficiency. See the Signs and Symptoms of Iodine Deficiency.
Tips: Iodine deficiency is a problem in some countries, particularly those where salt isn’t iodized. But in places like North America, where salt is iodized, excess iodine is a very real problem. Some people switch to sea salt, which is very low in natural iodine. But doctors often caution dairy-free consumers who use sea salt and avoid processed foods to keep an eye out for iodine deficiency. This can be an even bigger issue for vegans.
Ah, calcium – milk’s claim to fame. Cow’s milk has roughly 300 milligrams of calcium per glass, which is a hefty amount. But it’s far from the only source of calcium. See our Calcium Chart for 150 different dairy-free foods, How to Choose Calcium Supplements, and How Much Calcium is in Your Plant Milk. Calcium is the foundation of our bones, and is also needed to keep our nerves and muscles (including heart muscles) functioning properly. See the Signs of Calcium Deficiency.
Tips: Don’t become too calcium obsessed. It is an essential mineral, but supplements and fortification can make it easy to get too much calcium, which isn’t a good thing. Toxicity symptoms can set in at amounts much lower than you might think. And building strong bones isn’t purely about calcium. Many other vitamins and minerals, like magnesium and vitamin D, play equally important roles. See How Much Calcium Do I Need on a Dairy-Free Diet for more information.
Milk is a great source of phosphorous, which is an essential building block for bones and acts as a buffer to help maintain a healthy pH level in our bodies. Fortunately, phosphorous is abundant in protein-rich foods, including meat, fish, eggs, beans, nuts, lentils, and grains. Dark chocolate is also a great source! So a phosphorous deficiency is quite rare. But vegans should keep in mind that the phosphorous in plant foods has much lower absorption than the phosphorous from animal sources.
Tips: It’s far more common to consume too much phosphorous than too little. Unlike many other vitamins and minerals, phosphorous isn’t as abundant in fruits and vegetables. But it is used by manufacturers in many processed foods, like sodas, snack foods, and ready-to-eat meals.
This mineral plays important roles in our immune health, thyroid function, reproduction, DNA synthesis, and more. Consequently, selenium is particularly important for people with certain types of thyroid dysfunction, with impaired immune systems, or who are pregnant. Nuts, seeds, whole grains, lentils, meats, fish, and greens are all great sources of selenium. See this article on Selenium Deficiency to understand the risks.
Tips: The amount of selenium in foods depends heavily on the soil it is grown in. This isn’t as much of a problem for North America, but can be an issue in less developed nations.
Potassium is an electrolyte that helps your nerves function and muscles contract, including the very important heart muscle. Produce is a key source of potassium, including bananas, leafy greens, potatoes, sweet potatoes, avocadoes, and tomatoes. Legumes and fish are also top potassium sources.
Although potassium deficiency is considered uncommon, it’s estimated that most Americans do not consume enough potassium. Dairy milk provides about 10% of the RDA per cup, so it’s important to add other good potassium sources on a dairy-free diet. Read about Low Potassium vs Potassium Deficiency.
Tips: Of course fresh fruits and vegetables are always good options, but dried apricots and prunes are also quite high in potassium. And coconut water is a quick, hydrating source of this key mineral.
Zinc & Magnesium
Some of you might be wondering about these two important minerals, which many of us don’t consume enough of. They are both found in milk, but not in particularly high amounts. If you are a truly high dairy consumer, make sure you consume other high protein foods (meat, shellfish, beans, etc.) to meet your zinc quota and more plants (greens, grains, etc.) for magnesium. See this information on Zinc Deficiency and Magnesium Deficiency for more helpful details.