Dairy-free Diet Alternatives for Lactose Intolerant Seniors

Medicare Benefits Solutions

Jul 27, 2022

Whether you’ve had life-long allergies or food sensitivities, or if you’ve recently noticed changes in your health after eating dairy, you may be looking for some alternative options. Seniors can struggle with nutrition due to medications or chronic illness, but needing dairy-free alternatives shouldn’t keep you from eating foods that will keep you strong and healthy.

What are Dairy Products?

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) reports that “about 90% of Americans do not get enough dairy, therefore, most individuals would benefit by increasing intake of fat-free or low-fat dairy.”

The dairy group includes:

  • Milk
  • Yogurt
  • Cheese
  • Lactose-free milk
  • Calcium-fortified soy milk
  • Yogurt

The USDA recommends dairy products for building bone and maintaining bone strength. Dairy products provide a variety of nutrients including:

  • Vitamins D (fortified products), A and B12
  • Riboflavin
  • Protein
  • Calcium
  • Zinc
  • Choline
  • Magnesium
  • Phosphorous
  • Selenium
  • Potassium

Tip: according to the USDA, high-fat dairy products with a low calcium content aren’t included in the dairy group. This includes foods such as sour cream, cream cheese, butter and cream.

What Type of Diet is Best for You?

Nutrition is vital for healthy, active living, especially for seniors. Consuming essential nutrients may contribute to longevity and cognition. But before jumping on the bandwagon of one of the trending diets, you should understand the difference between a lactose-free and dairy-free diet. If you need to be on a restricted diet, either due to personal preference or being allergic to milk, you can find alternative foods to satisfy your palate.

Nutrition can have an impact on many conditions and illnesses, so don’t make sudden or drastic changes to your diet without talking to your doctor first. Depending on your circumstances, your doctor may suggest meeting with a nutritionist who can help you learn how to adapt to lifestyle changes.

Dairy-free Diet

With a dairy-free diet plan, you remove all or nearly all dairy foods. Many people choose to follow a dairy-free diet because of inflammation, headaches, congestion, skin irritation, or more serious gastrointestinal issues.

If you’re experiencing chronic symptoms, discuss your concerns with your physician. If you determine that dairy should be removed from your diet, your doctor may be able to help you find non-dairy alternatives that will still give you the vitamins and minerals you need.

Lactose-free Diet

There can be some confusion between a lactose-free and dairy-free diet. Lactose is a kind of sugar derived from milk and other dairy products. For your body to digest lactose, your small intestine needs to manufacture an enzyme known as lactase.

Lactose intolerance results when your body does not produce enough lactose. According to MedlinePlus, lactose intolerance is a common condition. “About 30 million American adults have some degree of lactose intolerance by age 20.”

Lactose-free foods include:

  • Fruits and vegetables
  • Red and white meat, including beef and pork
    Poultry and seafood
  • Eggs
  • Rice, almond, oat, coconut cashew, or hemp milk
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Soy
  • Whole grains
  • Legumes: beans (black, kidney, pinto and garbanzo) and lentils

Milk Allergy

The Federal Drug Administration (FDA) lists milk as one of the eight major allergens. The others are eggs, fish, shellfish (crab, lobster, barnacle and shrimp), peanuts, tree nuts, soybeans and wheat. If you have a milk allergy, you may need to avoid milk products of any kind.

Personal Preference for a Dairy-free Diet

You may opt for a dairy-free diet even if you don’t have dairy intolerance or sensitivity. You may be concerned about the fat, sugar and added hormones found in dairy products. Some people report that eliminating dairy from their diet reduces fatigue, bloating, abdominal pain, acne and diarrhea.

However, you don’t want to deprive yourself of the nutrients your body needs. For example, as we age, it is natural to lose bone density. Calcium, Vitamin D and magnesium intake may help slow down bone loss. So, look for dairy-free alternatives.

The following are some non-dairy sources of calcium:

  • Soy-based protein shakes
  • Dark, leafy greens
  • Sardines with bones
  • Beans
  • Tofu

Tip: The body is able to absorb calcium from greens like broccoli, kale, collards and turnip greens but not as much from spinach, Swiss chard, rhubarb and beet greens.

What Can I Eat on a Non-dairy Diet?

With all the health benefits dairy provides, you may be wondering how you can eat for optimal nutrition if you are on a dairy-free program. Here are some healthful foods you can still enjoy:

  • Milk made from almonds, soy, oats, rice or cashews (unless you have an allergy to soy or nuts)
  • Dairy-free coconut milk yogurt
  • Lean meats, plant-based protein, tofu and fatty fish
  • Vegetables, such as kale, broccoli and spinach
  • Extra virgin olive oil as an alternative to butter
  • Eggs
  • Nuts and nut butters
  • Calcium-fortified cereal, orange juice and rice

Tip: If you can tolerate some lactose, the USDA recommends hard cheeses such as Parmesan and yogurt, which have a low-lactose in comparison to regular milk.

What Can’t You Eat on a Dairy-free Diet?

A dairy-free diet excludes:

  • Milk derived from animals like cows or goats
  • Cheese, particularly soft cheese like ricotta, cottage and cream cheese
  • Butter and buttermilk
  • Dairy sherbet, ice cream and frozen yogurt
  • Whipped cream
  • Sour cream
  • Some baked goods containing dairy products

Can You Eat Chocolate on a Dairy-free Diet?

You may be able to find dark chocolate without milk, but it’s important to read food labels. If the dark chocolate is manufactured on the same equipment used to make milk chocolate, traces of milk may be present. In that case, the label should state that it is “produced in a facility with milk.” The FDA says that “chocolates are one of the most common sources of undeclared milk associated with consumer reactions.”

How to Create a Meal Plan That Works for You

An unhappy gut impacts all your internal systems. Nutrition science guides us in understanding gut-friendly foods, but there is no one-size-fits-all solution that speaks to everyone’s nuances.

Health experts suggest starting diet changes by eliminating suspect foods, journaling in a food diary and gradually reintroducing foods to identify your body’s response. Listen to your body, and discuss concerns with your nutritionist or doctor.

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