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How to Assess Your Nutritional Needs for a Dairy-Free Diet

When living dairy-free, one way to make sure you’re getting the nutrients you need is with dietary supplements. Vitamin and mineral supplements — concentrated doses of individual nutrients — can be little daily servings of nutritional insurance.

For nondairy consumers who consistently eat diets that are heavy on the junk and light on the fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes (which are important ingredients in a high-quality diet), a multivitamin and mineral supplement may be useful in filling in the gaps.

Nutritional supplements can never really take the place of whole foods, which contain the full complement of nutrients you need for health. At best, they’re a fallback position. At worst, they can hurt you. Still, whether or not you include dairy products in your diet, if you don’t eat well consistently, you may need vitamin and mineral supplements. If you do take nutritional supplements, you should be sure to get good advice about what and how much to take.

Here are a few of the situations in which taking a supplement may be better than not:

  • You’re a strict vegetarian or vegan. If you consistently eat a vegetarian diet that excludes meat, fish, and poultry — or a vegan diet that excludes meat, fish, poultry, eggs, milk, and other dairy products — you should consider a vitamin B12 supplement.

    After all, the only reliable sources of vitamin B12 that don’t come from an animal are vitamin B12 supplements or foods fortified with vitamin B12, such as fortified soymilk or rice milk and fortified breakfast cereals. Vegans also may benefit from supplements of vitamin D, calcium, and possibly docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), an omega-3 fatty acid that’s essential for human health.

  • You’re pregnant. When you’re eating for two, your healthcare provider may advise you to take a prenatal supplement as a form of health insurance, to fill in any gaps in your diet.

  • You’re breastfeeding a baby. Breastfeeding puts extra demands on your body. Just like during pregnancy, your healthcare provider may recommend a supplement during this time to help ensure you’re getting all the nutrients you need.

  • You’re an older adult. As you age, you need fewer calories than when you were younger. That leaves less room for sweets and other empty-calorie foods. Because eating well consistently is challenging, taking a supplement may be a way to hedge your nutritional bets.

If you’re living dairy-free and uncertain that you’re meeting your nutritional needs, get some individualized advice before starting supplements. The most appropriate resource for nutrition counseling is a registered dietitian (RD). An RD is someone who has expertise in food and nutrition and has met specific educational and experience criteria set forth by the Commission on Dietetic Registration. Registered dietitians have passed a national registration exam and complete continuing education requirements.

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