Are All Dairy-Free Transition Foods Healthy?

Sep 30, 2021

Anything omnivores eat you can eat dairy-free. It’s a comfort to know that no sacrifice is required to go dairy-free, because there virtually is a quality non-dairy alternative for every dairy product imaginable. But are these familiar foods healthy in their dairy-free form? Not always. We call these analogs transition foods, and just like their dairy-based counterparts, some moderation is required if the goal is to feel your best. This is part two of our series on healthy eating. We’ll define transition foods, review their risks and benefits, and provide practical advice as to how to enjoy them without derailing your health goals. 

Dairy-Free Transition Foods

Dairy-free options have skyrocketed just within the past five years. As of 2020, plant-based milk alone accounted for 35 percent of the entire $7 billion plant-based foods market. Consumers can have their pick of non-dairy ice cream, cheeses, baked goods, pizza, and more when grocery shopping or dining out. These transition foods—or dairy-free alternatives—are important; they’ve encouraged more people to give dairy-free a try more than ever before. Even those who have been dairy-free for years enjoy a cheesy dip or a vanilla latte with dairy-free whip from time to time. However, many of these foods are not health foods—even without the dairy. 

Transition foods help people ditch dairy without really making any sacrifices. To truly reap the benefits of a dairy-free (and plant-based) diet, it’s best to consume these foods in moderation or only for a short period of time while adjusting to the new way of eating. If you’re new to the dairy-free lifestyle, go ahead and indulge in the plant-based mac and cheese, pizza, grilled cheese, and ice cream, but they shouldn’t be the only things you eat. As a general rule, if you wouldn’t exist off of these foods if they contained animal products, you probably shouldn’t do so with their plant-based replicas. As you start to get comfortable eating dairy-free, try to swap in more whole foods and less processed foods gradually over time. For example, instead of baked mac and cheese made with store-bought shreds, make your own cheesy sauce out of whole food ingredients (this sweet potato-based sauce will blow your mind!). Instead of layering cheese slices in your sandwich, try a thick schmear of hummus. You’re not taking away anything—you’re just replacing the processed stuff with better-for-you whole foods. 

If you’re going dairy-free for health reasons, think of transition foods as the second step on your health journey. They’re certainly less harmful than dairy (no cholesterol, hormones, or IGF-1), but they do contain saturated fats and often added sugars that can negatively affect your health over time. While some may boast of high protein content, keep in mind that this protein may not come in the most robust nutrient package. Sure, there may be 20 grams of protein, but is it made with whole foods, or mostly oils, starches, and refined sugars? Does it contain essential micronutrients, or is the caloric, sugar, and fat content the highest numbers you see on the nutrient label? Fat is not bad, but saturated and trans fat are less desirable than unsaturated fat and may cause inflammation when consumed in excess. 

Use transition foods as a stepping stone—if needed—toward a more whole foods, plant-based diet. For more on the whole food, plant-based diet (WFPB), see part one of this series.  

Play by the 80/20 Rule

A WFPB diet is rich in variety, flavors, and textures, but that’s not to say processed foods aren’t delicious as well. And we’re not saying you have to give them up—just play by the 80/20 rule. The concept is simple, and no, you don’t need a calculator—truly, it’s more of a guideline than an actual rule. Roughly 80 percent of your diet should come from whole, plant-based foods that nourish your body, and roughly 20 percent of your diet can come from more processed products such as cashew-based cream cheese, flavored soy lattes, and decadent nut-based cheesecakes. By ensuring a vast majority of your diet is based in produce, nuts and seeds, beans, legumes, and grains, you’re achieving two things: satiating yourself with nourishing foods and obtaining the nutrients you need. Filling up on whole foods doesn’t leave much room for the processed items, which means you don’t have to worry about eating in excess. 

What does an 80/20 day of eating look like? We’ll break it down for you:

Breakfast: oatmeal made with soy milk, seasoned with cinnamon, and topped with a dollop of nut butter and banana slices Snack: Store-bought oat milk yogurt
Lunch: Big salad with leafy greens, chopped veggies, and a tahini dressing
Dinner: Fajitas with corn tortillas, seasoned beans, grilled veggies, lettuce, pico de gallo, and dairy-free sour cream
Dessert: Nice cream or (on occasion) a dairy-free brownie or cupcake 

For more ideas of what an 80/20 day of eating looks like, check out our meal plan page for recipe-less dishes you can throw together quickly. Questions about the 80/20 specifics? Check out the 80/20 Plants program, run by our friend and plant-based Olympian Julia Murray. 

This is part two of our series on healthy eating. Click here for part three on nutrient needs, nutrition labels, and how to decipher them. 

Photo credit: Daiya Foods

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