I love dairy. As a man of primarily Northern European descent, my ancestors have been consuming the stuff for thousands of years. It doesn’t give me any issues. You won’t find me chugging tall glasses of straight milk these days, but I’m a big believer in cream, cheese, yogurt, and kefir. Very nutrient-dense food if you can handle it. Lactase persistence? I practically have lactase insistence.
My favorable response to dairy makes keto especially easy. High-fat and fermented dairy is high in nutrients and low in digestible carbs (the bacteria consume most of the lactose). Cheese, cream, kefir, and yogurt all happen to be the most nutritious forms of dairy and the most keto-friendly. Many others getting into keto lean heavily on dairy. It just makes keto easier, especially if you’ve grown up eating dairy.
But globally my reaction to dairy is pretty rare, and that changes the keto landscape for most people.
Most of the world has some degree of lactose intolerance, meaning once weaned from breast milk they no longer retain the digestive enzyme required to comfortably break down the milk sugar lactose. A smaller but still significant chunk of people have dairy protein intolerance; they get an inflammatory or allergic response to the proteins found in dairy, most commonly casein. And there’s also the problem of A1 casein, a relatively novel form of dairy casein that has been shown to cause inflammatory issues in the guts of susceptible people, whereas the more “ancestral” form of casein—A2 casein—does not. A1 casein is far more common these days, and not everyone can handle it or find access to A2 casein-producing dairy animals.
In other words, there are many people reading this blog interested in going keto who either cannot or don’t want to consume dairy. They need tips for doing it dairy-free. And today, I’m going to give them some.
MCT oil powder: I’ve never been a big fan of the straight-up MCT oils. They’re fine if you like adding oil to your coffee, but I really prefer using the powdered MCT oil. The way I do it is mix a scoop or two with a little liquid—milk (although not if you’re avoiding dairy), coconut milk, water, etc—and then add the resulting slurry to the coffee.
Cashews: Cashews are a great creamer replacement because they have a natural sweetness to them. They’re also very rich in fat and low in fiber for a nut, so they promote extreme creaminess when blended. Some of my favorite Indian curries use cashews blended into water as the base instead of heavy cream or yogurt.
Tahini: A fantastic alternative to heavy cream is to blend tahini (sesame seed butter) with coconut milk and a teaspoon of blackstrap molasses. I normally blend the tahini into a bit of heavy cream, but coconut milk or cream also work. Don’t fear the few carbs in that teaspoon of blackstrap molasses; it’s key. You’ll find a nice coffee recipe using tahini here.
Macadamia cream: Blend macadamia butter (make by throwing mac nuts into a food processor) with a bit of water. Mac nuts are almost pure fat, so they make a fantastic creamer base.
Hemp: As I mentioned in one of my recent Sunday With Sisson emails (subscribe to the newsletter to receive those if you’re interested), one of my latest favorites is using 2-3 TB whole hemp hearts, a scoop of Vanilla Collagen Fuel, a dash of salt and cinnamon, and blending it all together until frothy and creamy. The hemp provides a ton of magnesium and creaminess, the Fuel gives collagen and rounds it out, and the salt and cinnamon provide flavor, sodium, and a little extra barrier against insulin resistance. All told, it’s a great way to enhance your coffee and provide many of the nutrients you need while ketogenic.
Eggs: Primal egg coffee. Egg yolks are also great thickeners for sauces where you’d normally use cream or butter.
Yeah, yeah, conventional wisdom sources are obsessed with people missing out on calcium if they choose to eschew dairy, and they get so much about nutrition so wrong that it’s easy to ignore that one, too. They’re not wrong though. Dairy is a good source of calcium, perhaps the best, and definitely the easiest and most available. And although one reason why people feel they need so much calcium for good bone health is that they’re walking around with vitamin D deficiency—which impairs calcium metabolism—you do need calcium.
How do you get calcium on a dairy-free keto diet?
Eat bone-in fish. Canned sardines are a really easy, really delicious way to do it. An average can provides about 20% of your daily calcium requirements. Trader Joe’s has a great bone-in, skin-on wild pink salmon in a BPA-free can. If you eat all 7 servings in the can, you’ll hit 70% of your calcium requirements plus 35 grams of fat, much of which is omega-3, and 90 grams of protein. You could even slow cook whole bone-in fish until the bones soften enough to eat.
Cook bones or bone-in meat in acidic liquid. The old practice of adding a splash or two of apple cider vinegar to your bone broth pot doesn’t actually extract any measurable calcium from the bones. To really extract calcium, you need lots of acidity. An old Chinese postnatal meal was spare ribs cooked in vinegar (and sugar, but you can leave that out); the vinegar extracted huge amounts of calcium from the bones, giving the mother a much-needed source of calcium as she nursed her child. Cook ribs, shanks, or make bone broth using an acidic liquid like red wine or a high vinegar:water ratio. The Chinese vinegar sauce had a pH of 3.2, so you’ll want to aim for something in that realm of acidity. Red wine runs between 3.3 and 3.5 pH.
Eat collard greens. Some of the other calcium plant sources are also quite high in oxalates, which can bind to calcium and inhibit its absorption. Collard greens have less oxalate than most others and plenty of calcium. They’re also delicious cooked in some bacon fat, bone broth (maybe the high-calcium bone broth from the last section, even), and vinegar.
Focus On Whole Foods Rather Than Isolated Fats
Lots of keto people use dairy as a crutch. They drink cream by the cupful. They eat blocks of cheese like apples (not a bad thing, necessarily). They eat bowls and bowls of stevia-sweetened whip cream. They throw sticks of butter in their coffee. All of this in a quest to “get more fat.” These are good foods, to be sure (it’s a great crutch), but I don’t think they should form the basis of your caloric intake. They should enhance a meal, not replace it.
What if instead of subbing in buckets of coconut cream, cashew cheese, and MCT oil, you ate more eggs, meat, and salads? You don’t need to drink shots of olive oil or avocado oil. You can add them to your salad along with some olives and avocado. You can eat actual foods. Actual meals.
This applies to people eating dairy, too. But if you’re dropping dairy and are interested in 1-to-1 isolated fat sources, perhaps use this opportunity to switch over to a whole foods-focus.
A big reason keto folks rely on dairy so much is that it’s easy. It’s right there, ready to be poured (kefir, cream), sliced up (cheese), spread (butter), or scooped out (yogurt, cottage cheese).
Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.