Skip to main content

As we have discussed in the past, many (most) of us don’t adopt a 100% plant-based lifestyle overnight.

Instead, we transition to a 100% whole food plant-based diet in steps and stages.

But which steps are really the best ones to take?

Many who aren’t ready to make the 100% plant-based transition will ask themselves which of the following two dietary choices are better:

Choice One: To be vegetarian, completely eliminate meat (but still eat cheese and other dairy foods.)

Choice Two: To be mostly plant-based and 100% dairy free (but still eat fish and chicken in small amounts and on occasion).

My vote?

Choice Number Two.

In terms of both overall health benefits and your long-term chance of successfully transitioning to a whole food plant-based lifestyle, the elimination of dairy from your diet should be your top priority.

Why You Need to Close the Door on Dairy

Let me explain why the elimination of dairy is so important:

Reason One: Dairy is one of the biggest sources of saturated fats

Dairy, pizza and dairy-based desserts are the main sources of saturated fats in the Standard American Diet.

And it gets worse. When you predominantly eat cheese, those levels of saturated fat are even higher. Here are some striking Fat Facts about cheese:

  • The cheese-making process squeezes out water and lactose while concentrating fat and protein (casein).
  • A two-ounce serving of cheese contains 18 grams of fat (10 g saturated) and 230 calories.
  • As a percentage of total calories, cheese may be as high as 78% fat and 46% saturated fat.
  • Ounce-for-ounce, cheese contains more cholesterol than a steak. (Ouch!)

A typical vegetarian diet very often contains the same high level of fat, saturated fat, and animal protein found in the standard American diet!

So it should come as no surprise that eliminating dairy – especially cheese – leads to weight loss, lower cholesterol and a lower risk of heart disease.

Reason Two: Dairy is extremely difficult to eliminate.

I’ve seen it countless times. When people start to transition to a plant-based diet, they discover that while they don’t miss meat or chicken, they continue to crave dairy. Specifically, people find the biggest challenge is to eliminate cheese, believing it is really something they canNOT live without.

Why is dairy so hard to eliminate?

For starters dairy products have a protein called “casein” which—when digested–studies suggest may act like an opiate. It has been proposed that this “opiate-like” effect of dairy products stems from the role dairy (i.e. milk) plays in infancy. The opiates in milk calm infants and encourage them to nurse and thus get life-sustaining nutrition. Some go far to argue that the opiates in milk may also strengthen mother-child bonding. Interestingly, cheese has more casein than any other dairy product, which may account for its highly “addictive” profile.

But the “addictive” quality of dairy and cheese does not stem only from casein. It is also due to the high levels of fat and sodium. As we explained in our SOS article, fat and salt all by themselves are highly addictive. The more you eat, the more your body craves. So while casein is probably a central reason that dairy (and specifically cheese) is so hard to give up, we need to also acknowledge the role dairy’s high fat and salt content plays.

Reason Three: Dairy (and eggs) are everywhere.

Another reason that dairy (and cheese) are so extremely hard to eliminate from your life altogether is because they are ubiquitous.

Even worse, dairy as well as eggs are ‘stealth’ ingredients; they can be found everywhere even though often their presence is ‘hidden’.

Dairy is sneaky.

From sprinkles and salad dressings to sauces and pasta dishes, cheese finds its way into a host of seemingly ‘non-dairy’ foods. For example, butter, milk and milk fat are all used to cook vegetables and to bake goods like breads, pastries and cakes. Even juices are sometimes sweetened with milk sugars!

Let’s Review the 80/20 Rule

In the end, the elimination of dairy should be a top priority for anyone who is serious about living a healthful whole food plant-based diet. As we discussed in our 80/20 article, it is often a 20% change which can give you 80% of the results you’re looking for whether it’s weight loss or better overall health. And it’s not a mistake that in that article, I listed the elimination of dairy as my number one choice for applying the 80/20 principle in your life. Once you eliminate dairy, you’ll realize you don’t miss it anymore. You’ll understand how continuing to eat “just a little bit” of cheese is what makes you crave it! And once those cravings are gone, you are free to continue on your 100% plant-based path.

How to Free Yourself From Dairy

Here is how you can begin to free yourself from dairy.

  1. The first step is the hardest: you have to decide to completely eliminate all dairy products, including your “friend” cheese, from your diet.
  2. Be Diligent. Read every label. Understand every ingredient.
  3. Find Alternatives. It’s easy to make non-dairy milk and cream at home. Equally, plant-based cheeses are getting better and better.
  4. Eat whole, plant-based foods. Whole plants come packaged with all the nutrition you need, including protein, vitamins and minerals (e.g. calcium) and healthful fiber. And they are guaranteed 100% dairy-free!

In conclusion, one of the best ways to succeed in a full transition to whole food, plant-based eating is to eliminate dairy first.

I’ve seen it work for lots of people, including me! And while at first it seemed difficult, (I too thought I was someone who could NOT live without eating dairy!), after a few short months, I barely missed it.

The good news?

By slaying the dairy (and cheese) dragon first, you are dealing with the hardest obstacle first; the rest of your transition to a 100% whole food plant-based life will seem much easier in comparison.

Closing the door on dairy opens up a whole new world of plant-based living.

Maybe it’s time?

Rosane Oliveira, DVM, PhD

President & CEO, Plant-Based Life Foundation | Dr. Rosane Oliveira combines a lifelong passion for nutrition with 25 years of genetics research to create programs that help people develop healthy habits on their journey towards a more plant-based lifestyle. She is a Visiting Clinical Professor in Public Health Sciences and was the founding director of the first Integrative Medicine program at the UC Davis School of Medicine. She completed her postgraduate studies in Brazil and did her postdoctoral training in immunogenetics and functional genomics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.