Dairy free, and worried you might be missing out on vital nutrients? Nutrition Consultant Sarah Elliott answers your dietry questions.
Q: Does following a dairy free diet leave us vulnerable to nutritional deficiencies?
It can do, as New Zealanders typically obtain the majority of their calcium from dairy products. If you are removing dairy from your diet it is important you substitute with other high calcium foods.
Vitamin D is fairly hard to find in our diet, and dairy products are one of the few food sources of this vital nutrient. There has been increasing concern around the number of New Zealanders becoming vitamin D deficient, in particular over the winter months. Our skin produces up to 80% of our vitamin D when exposed to the sun. However this is reduced when we heed much-needed sun smart messages. In those not getting enough ‘healthy’ sun exposure, dairy products – or good alternatives – can be pretty important.
Dairy products provide a good amount of protein too, but luckily there are many other foods
Q: Why are calcium and vitamin D so important?
Calcium is essential for strong healthy bones and teeth, and the proper functioning of our heart. Along with other nutrients, a low intake is associated with osteoporosis (thinning of the bone). Our serum calcium (calcium found in our blood) is very tightly regulated and doesn’t change with our diet. So unfortunately a simple blood test can’t tell us if we’re deficient or not.
Vitamin D is another key nutrient in bone health. A low level in the body causes an increased risk of bone fractures. It is also important for a healthy immune system, regulating cell growth and in reducing inflammation.
If you get little sun and are concerned you might be deficient, your vitamin D levels can be checked by your GP via a blood test.
Q: If we’re following a dairy free diet, how do we ensure we’re getting all the nutrients we need?
Fortunately there are many great milk alternatives on the market. There is calcium fortified almond milk, soy milk, rice milk, oat milk and more! Two other foods which can compete with dairy’s high calcium levels are firm tofu and canned fish with bones (such as sardines or salmon). Many other foods have smaller amounts of calcium, and are important to include in your diet, as they all contribute to your daily needs. These include kale, broccoli, almonds, Chinese cabbage, oranges, rhubarb, tahini and fortified cereals.
If you enjoy oily fish, such as salmon and mackerel, you’re in luck. They are the richest dietary source of vitamin D. Other foods containing vitamin D include eggs and lean meat. Some margarines, milks and yoghurts are vitamin D-fortified.