On this page

Dairy-free diet

Two plates of dairy free diet salad and salmon
On this page

If you’ve been thinking about your diet or intolerances, you might have thought about cutting out dairy. It’s always good to be health-conscious, but before you make significant changes to your diet, it’s a great idea to learn more about dairy and dairy-free alternatives.

What’s the difference between dairy and lactose?


Dairy foods are made from milk. That can mean milk from cows, goats, sheep or other milk-producing animals. Dairy products include cheese, yoghurt and ice cream, to name just a few.

Just as you can be allergic to nuts or wheat, you can also be allergic to cow’s milk. This dairy allergy is sometimes called cow’s milk allergy (CMA) or cow’s milk protein allergy (CMPA), as it’s usually the proteins in the milk that cause the reaction.

Most people with CMPA are diagnosed in childhood. If you think you have an undiagnosed dairy allergy, speak to your doctor for a diagnosis.


Lactose is a substance in milk that your body breaks down into smaller sugars. Your system does this using an enzyme called lactase.

Some people don’t have enough of this enzyme. If that’s you, you might experience symptoms when you eat or drink lactose. Many fresh dairy products contain lactose, including milk, yoghurt and ice cream.

What are the symptoms of a dairy allergy?

Dairy allergies can cause symptoms ranging from mild to severe. If you eat or drink dairy and have an allergy to it, you might notice symptoms like:

  • Rash or hives
  • Coughing
  • Wheezing
  • Stomach cramps
  • Vomiting and diarrhoea
  • Swelling

Dairy allergies can lead to a severe reaction called anaphylaxis. This can cause swelling, breathing problems and low blood pressure.

You should always seek medical advice if you think you have symptoms of a dairy allergy. If you experience symptoms of anaphylaxis, call 999 straight away.

What are the symptoms of lactose intolerance?

If you have lactose intolerance and consume lactose, your symptoms will be mostly related to the digestive system. These can include:

  • Stomach cramps
  • Bloating
  • Wind
  • Feeling sick
  • Diarrhoea

What are the health benefits of a dairy-free diet?

You might be interested in whether not eating dairy can make for a healthier diet. The science is not clear-cut. Some guidelines say you should reduce how much dairy you eat, claiming that dairy can increase the levels of bad fats in your blood. Other studies have suggested this might not be the case.

There is evidence that dairy may lead to skin problems. Some studies claim that consuming milk can increase acne.

Are there risks from a dairy-free diet?

Dairy contains various essential nutrients, including proteins, vitamins and calcium. Calcium is vital for bone health in childhood and for adults.

There’s lots of guidance out there. Some states that 60% of calcium should come from dairy products, while there is evidence that a woman’s risk of breaking a bone may be slightly higher if they drink a lot of milk.

If you decide to go dairy-free, make sure you eat a balanced diet with all the protein, energy, vitamins and calcium needed.

Is there medication for lactose intolerance?

In the past, the only way to stop the symptoms of lactose intolerance was to cut out all dairy and lactose-containing products from the diet. Today there are other options for people with dairy intolerances.

People with lactose intolerance may be able to eat or drink small amounts of dairy without experiencing symptoms. The amount of dairy will differ from person to person.

Supplements containing the missing enzyme (lactase) are widely available in pharmacies and health food shops. These can help those with lactose intolerance eat lactose-containing products. If taking supplements, you may still need to reduce dairy and lactose compared to someone with no allergies.

What foods are dairy-free?

The best way to make sure your food has no dairy is to read the ingredients list. Any dairy products should be bold, as this is a common allergen.

You might be relieved to know that there are many dairy substitutes, so if you love ice cream or cheese, there’s likely an alternative option:

  • Non-dairy kinds of milk – like soy, almond, coconut, oat and pea milk
  • Cheese alternatives – coconut, cashew, oat, almond and soy cheese
  • Yoghurt and ice cream alternatives – frozen desserts, prebiotic drinks and dairy-free yoghurts are also available

Foods to avoid with a dairy allergy

Cutting out dairy can be challenging, especially if you eat or drink a lot in your current diet. Common dairy foods to avoid include:

  • Milk
  • Yoghurt
  • Butter
  • Ice cream

Some foods containing dairy can be a bit surprising:

  • Sausages
  • Chicken nuggets
  • Some crisps
  • Beef burgers

Milk is a common cause of allergic reactions, so it must be listed in the ingredients by law. If you’re unsure if something is dairy-free, just check the label carefully.

Dairy-free meal options

There are countless dairy-free meal options out there. Here are a few easy examples you can add into your routine:

Meal Dairy-free ideas
Breakfast Cereal with dairy-free milk
Porridge made with dairy-free milk or water
Fresh fruit salad
Wholemeal toast with dairy-free spread, nut butter or jam
Lunch/dinner Meat or fish with your choice of vegetables, rice, pasta, grains or potatoes
Chicken, fish or vegetable curries with rice
Soup (check for dairy ingredients like crème fraiche)
Couscous salads
Puddings Fresh fruit
Nut butter and apple slices
Dairy-free biscuits
Snacks Vegetables or toasted pita bread dipped in humous
Wholemeal toast and nut butter or jam
Fresh fruit Nuts and seeds
Chickpea crisps


A final note on dairy allergies

Dairy allergies and lactose intolerance can cause various unpleasant symptoms. If you’re going dairy or lactose-free, many delicious dairy-free alternatives and ingredients can help you get the calcium and vitamins needed to stay healthy.

Dairy-free is just one diet you might try if you’re looking to take care of your health or shake up your routine. Others include a gluten-free diet, a Mediterranean diet or the Paleo diet.

Weight loss service