Just about everyone has dietary restrictions these days—in fact, many people cut out entire food groups, like dairy. Whether you have a milk allergy, are lactose intolerant, or just aren’t a fan, it’s important to be aware that ditching dairy may mean potentially missing out on a number of key nutrients.
Thing is, dairy foods are pretty jam-packed with the good stuff. Cow’s milk contains nine essential nutrients, including protein, calcium, potassium, phosphorus, vitamin A, vitamin D, and vitamin B2 (riboflavin). Cheese also provides protein, calcium, zinc, phosphorus, magnesium, vitamin A, vitamin B2, and vitamin B12. And yogurt (especially Greek yogurt) packs a good dose of protein, plus calcium and ever-important probiotics.
Don’t worry, though, you can find these nutrients in non-dairy sources. Just know that you may need to eat several different types of those foods to reach the amount of the nutrients in dairy.
We’ve put protein on a pedestal because of its ability to squash hunger and support and repair tissues and muscles. A cup of dairy milk contains eight grams of protein—but this is one nutrient you’ll have no problem making up for elsewhere. (Men need a bare minimum of 56 grams per day and women need at least 46 grams—but most of us get much more.)
Just one ounce of most animal proteins like meat, poultry, and fish provides as much (if not more) protein as that glass of milk. (A three-ounce chicken breast gets you about 26 grams.) Eggs come close with six grams of protein per egg. Plus, plenty of plants also provide similar levels of protein as milk. Tofu comes in around 10 grams of protein per four ounces, beans provide about six grams per half-cup, nuts provide about six grams per ounce, and whole grains contain about three grams per quarter-cup serving.
Related: 7 Vegetarian Protein Sources
2. Calcium and Vitamin D
I’m putting these two together because the pair is crucial for your bones—and many Americans fall short on both nutrients. (Vitamin D also plays an important role in your immune function.) Adults need about 600 IUs of vitamin D and 1,000 milligrams of calcium a day.
One cup of milk contains about 305 mg of calcium, while an ounce of hard cheese contains about around 200. Most milk is fortified to provide about 120 IUs of vitamin D, while that cheese supplies about six IUs. Many almond milks are also fortified with enough calcium and vitamin D to be a fair replacement for cow’s milk.
Other sources of calcium include canned salmon (including the soft bones), which offers 180mg per three ounces, firm tofu (320 mg per half a block), almonds (80mg per ounce), spinach (240mg per cup), and broccoli (180mg per cup).
Vitamin D, which is pretty darn tough to get from food, can be found in sockeye salmon (440 IUs in three ounces) and eggs (40 IUs per whole egg).
This mineral tag-teams with calcium to keep bones and teeth strong, and also helps strengthen your immune system. You’ll get 224mg phosphorus in a cup of milk, and adults need 700mg per day.
You’ll find phosphorus in other animal proteins like turkey (131 mg per three ounces), and sardines (215mg per three ounces, canned), and scallops (340mg per three and a half ounces). It’s also found in plant sources like quinoa (149mg per half -up), almonds (880mg per ounce), Brazil nuts (885mg per ounce) and in chia (265mg per tablespoon) and sesame seeds (21mg per tablespoon).
This electrolyte (a type of mineral) is a key player in establishing normal heart rhythm and stable blood pressure levels. Milk provides around 342 mg potassium per cup, and adults need about 4,700mg a day.
When dairy is off the table, turn to produce for your potassium—it’s pretty easy to find! Fruits and veggies like bananas (422mg per banana), white potato (1626mg per baked tater with skin), apricots (650mg per two ounces, dried) and kidney beans (655mg per cup) are some of the richest sources out there.
5. Vitamin A
Our bodies convert beta-carotene, which gives plants their orangey color, into vitamin A. Sweet potatoes (a whopping 11,916IU per three ounces), carrots (10,691IU per half-cup, chopped), cantaloupe (5987IU per cup), and winter squash (22,869IU per cup) all provide some. You can also get vitamin A from spinach (2,183IU per cup).
Also known as vitamin B2, this vitamin impacts energy production at a cellular level and generally helps keep cells in good shape. A cup of milk provides about 0.5mg, which is half of an adult’s daily B2 needs.
Beef liver (2.9mg per three ounces), clams (0.4mg per three ounces), and mushrooms (0.3mg per half-cup) all supply some riboflavin. This is another one that’s found in fortified cereals (1.7mg per serving).
The most abundant mineral in our body, magnesium plays a role in hundreds of different processes. (A few: blood sugar function, cardiovascular function, and digestion.) You’ll find 28mg of magnesium in a cup of milk. While women need about 320mg per day, men need about 420mg.
Plant foods like almonds (105mg per quarter cup) and sunflower seeds (128mg per ounceounce) contain magnesium. You can also find it in shrimp (36 mg per three ounces).
Get your fill of zinc from non-dairy foods like oysters (74mg per three ounces), crab (6.5 mg per three ounces), beef (7mg per three ounces), and baked beans (2.9mg per half-cup).
Last but not least are probiotics. These beneficial bacteria help your gut take better care of you; they boost immunity and can help ward off digestive woes. When you think probiotics, you probably think yogurt or kefir—and although the amounts and strains of probiotics in yogurts vary, varieties labeled “contains active, live cultures” are sure to provide some of the good stuff.
Luckily, probiotics are also pretty easy to find in non-dairy foods. Fermented foods like kimchi, sauerkraut, miso, tempeh, and pickles are natural sources of probiotics. You can also find it in super-trendy kombucha, a drink made from fermented tea.
Bonnie Taub-Dix, R.D.N., C.D.N., is an award-winning author, spokesperson, speaker, consultant, and owner of BTD Nutrition Consultants, LLC. She has been featured on TV, radio, and print, as well as in digital media, including Everyday Health, Better Homes & Gardens, Women’s Health, and U.S. News & World Report. She is a recipient of The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics’ Media Excellence Award.