Nearly every vegan I know that used to be a vegetarian said it was “giving up” cheese that was their biggest hurdle in going vegan. And certainly, nearly every vegetarian I currently speak to always comes out with that same line “I'd love to go vegan, but I just don't think I could live without cheese!”
Well here's the thing. Of course you can live without cheese. You just prefer not to. Yet it's much easier for a person to go without cheese, than it is for a cow to live without the calf that has been taken from her soon after birth, in order for humans to steal her milk.
If you're reading this post because you are interested in ditching dairy from your life (I hope so!), then you may already be aware what the multitude of reasons are for doing so. But I will just go over a few of those reasons, for those who are not aware.
Like all ways in which we use animals for our own purposes, the dairy industry is exceptionally cruel. Cows are forcibly impregnated year on year so that they may produce milk for humans to take, and their young are ripped from them soon after birth. Male calves will be sold for veal or shot, while female calves will be reared separately on formula to become dairy cows themselves.
The cow herself endures this agony of losing her babies for several years, as many as five or six, until she is so spent from being milked way beyond any natural occurrence of lactation (today, one cow will be forced tp produce 19,000 lbs of milk annually. See Got Milk?), she ends up in the same slaughterhouse as any other farmed animal.
Remaining a dairy-eater, even if the rest of your diet is plant-based, means playing a part in a most abhorrent industry. Quite likely, the amount of suffering and death you contribute to when you buy cheese, milk or butter is equal to the amount of suffering a meat-eater is contributing to.
But even if no cruelty were involved – it isn't right to use other sentient beings for our own intent and purpose - there is no moral justification for doing so. Dairy products are not “necessary” to our survival, in fact, they are are actually harmful to our health. Taste pleasure can never be justification for turning another being into a slave.
And the truth really is that we were never meant to consume dairy foods. All you have to do is think about it logically. Could you imagine continuing to drink your mother's breast milk after infancy, the time we are supposed to be weaned? If not – why on earth would it seem 'normal' to switch to the milk of another mammal?
We are the only mammals that when weaned from our own mother's milk, we switch to the milk of a different mammal. Which happens to be a cow. Mainly for reasons of their ease of domestication rather than this being the 'milk we were meant to drink'. We need cow's milk like we need rat's milk or elephant's milk.
Of course, people do also exploit other animals such as goats and sheep for their milk, and make cheese from their milk. These nonhumans suffer just as much as cows do - and although the mass of the industry and its abuses is focused on cows, excluding dairy products from your diet in a bid towards vegan living (which is not just about diet), does also include the milk products which come from animals other than cows, too. Such as feta cheese, which comes from ewes' milk.
Contrary to the information that the dairy industry pumps out, there is masses of evidence as to why dairy products are bad for us. It's well known that the majority of people in the world are not even able to digest lactose, the sugar found in milk, and lactose intolerance is now on the increase in Westerners.
People usually think milk equals calcium. And yes, milk is high in calcium, but it is also high in animal protein, which is acidic. The human body has a very narrow pH range at which it is comfortable, where our enzymes can function properly, so acid ends up being neutralised at the expense of the calcium in our bones – which then becomes excreted in urine. This means that dairy products are not the best source of calcium as they promote calcium losses at the same time as increasing calcium intake.
Numerous peer-reviewed studies say that drinking milk/eating dairy is not associated with any increased protection from osteoporosis – another false claim from the dairy industry - and it is even associated with the opposite, an increased risk of bone fracture. For example, in a 12-year Harvard study of 78,000 women, those who drank milk three times a day actually broke more bones than women who rarely drank milk.
Dairy products are highly linked with cancers too, including breast and prostate cancer, presumably related to increases in a compound called insulin-like growth factor (IGF-I). IGF-I is found in cow’s milk and has been shown to occur in increased levels in the blood of individuals consuming dairy products on a regular basis.
Plus they are also very high in saturated fat – especially cheese, which is 70% fat. Not great for the arteries, nor the waistline. There are numerous other health concerns with dairy products, too detailed to go into here, but you can see the PCRM page Health Concerns about Dairy for more information.
Ditching the dairy and finding alternatives
Recently, I went for dinner with a non-vegan friend. She ordered (sadly) a chicken salad, onto which she had parmesan sprinkled. I have to say that this time last year, almost, I was still in love with cheese, and I would have always accepted parmesan when offered (even though it isn't even vegetarian). The smell used to be a pleasure to my nostrils.
No longer, however. While chatting to my friend, me with my vegan meal, I remember feeling so nauseous from the smell of the parmesan that I had to lean back and push my chair away, so I did not start heaving. Whilst it would have been hard for me to believe at one time, I now do not miss cheese one bit.
I know you say you crave cheese, and you can't imagine going without it, but you can. And it is a moral obligation to do so, if you recognise that animals are not ours to use however we want, nor should suffer at our hands. It only takes a couple of weeks to learn to do without cheese or dairy products, and find new ways of cooking, and before you know it, you don't even miss it anymore.
So – this post is geared to helping you make the changes to take dairy products out of your diet, with some tips based on what worked for me. It's really not as hard as you think. You don't have to do everything at once, but bear in mind that a vegetarian diet is not a cruelty-free diet. Vegan is the goal, and is in fact, the moral baseline.
7 Effective Steps to Ditching Dairy for Good
1. Avoid cheese temptation
Until you've made the switch in your brain as to why you don't want, don't need, and shouldn't include cheese and dairy in your diet, then being around cheese can be very hard. So don't do it.
Obviously, you'll have made sure no cheese is left in the house (if you have a family who likes cheese, and you're the only one going vegan - don't think you're depriving them, you'll be doing them a favour).
Then for a couple of weeks, avoid anywhere there may be cheese. If dining out with friends, make the restaurant choice a cheese-free zone (Chinese cuisine, for example), don't go into pizza joints (d'oh!), stay away from buffets, and ensure you leave the house with some snacks, just in case you get hungry while out and use it is as a cheese excuse.
2. Swap to non-dairy milks
This is easy really. And before you say “Yuk, but I hate soya milk” - tell me, do you drink skimmed milk? Didn't you have to get 'used' to that? I still don't drink soya milk on its own (neither did I drink skimmed milk on its own), but it's fine in my tea and in my cooking.
Supermarket brand soya milks in the long-life cartons are really cheap – Aldi is 69p a litre – so cost isn't an issue, and they are great in tea. In coffee though, I tend to use Kara brand coconut milk (in fact, I was never a coffee fan until this!). I find coconut milk tastes most like what I remember dairy milk tasting like, and some soya milks also curdle in coffee (others are fine).
For cereals, porridge, smoothies, and drinking, experiment with the many delicious non-dairy milks out there. Almond milk, hazelnut milk, rice milk, hemp milk and so on. I prefer to buy vitamin-fortified brands where possible. But doing the milk switch is pretty easy, really.
And be patient. You may not love soya milk in your tea straight away – but remember the reasons you are doing this, and the time will come when it will be like you've done it forever.
3. Switch to vegan margarines or coconut oil
All the main supermarkets (at least, in the UK) carry at least two brands of vegan margarine – Vitalite, and Pure (Pure Soya, Pure Sunflower). These were the margarines that I used initially. I have to say, that is until I found they contained palm oil (which on the whole, unless I know where it is coming from, I now I want to avoid. See: Say No to Palm Oil).
You could try these at first, with a view to moving away from them as you learn and adapt more. There are other brands from specialist grocers, like Suma and Biona, which contain palm oil from certified sustainable sources. The jury is out on how 'sustainable' this really is, though it does seem that not all palm oil is the same (some comes from EU sources, like Greece), so these margarines could be another option - I do use these occasionally for some baking such as pastry.
However, I have started to pretty much use coconut oil (this brand) for all my 'buttery' needs. It can easily withstand high temperatures so is fabulous for baking and frying, but also, it is wonderful for spreading on toast. And even though it is a saturated fat, it is renowned for having many health benefits (and in countries where it is widely consumed, studies have shown populations to have a low risk of heart disease).
I rarely 'butter' bread – instead opting for vegan mayo or houmous or similar.
4. Don't immediately try cheese alternatives
A big mistake that a lot of people make in transitioning towards a dairy-free and vegan lifestyle is looking for cheese alternatives straight away. I bid you, don't do it!
There are plenty of good alternatives that can melt and be used in cooking, some better than others, but they are different to dairy cheese, and you may compare them unfavourably at first.
Keep 'cheese alternative free' for a couple of months. Instead - follow the tip below in learning to cook in different ways for a while, until you forget what dairy cheese tastes like. It does happen, I promise!
But once you've had a good, solid few weeks without any cheese – vegan or otherwise – then look into alternatives if you so desire (and you many not, of course).
5. Learn to cook meals that never included cheese
Tied in with what I am saying above, don't think straight away “How shall I have pizza if I can't have cheese?” Or “What about cheese on toast?” You can come to this in a few weeks (and then it won't even be an issue).
Instead, focus on eating dishes and meals that don't 'require' cheese. Learn to cook in new ways, dishes where cheese would not be the 'centrepiece' of the meal, such as curries and Asian cuisines. Nut roasts and vegetables, spicy veggie burgers with sweet chilli sauce, lentil and bean stews, etc would all be great, as well. Keep dishes where you may have traditionally eaten cheese off the menu a while.
6. When ready, explore the vegan alternatives for cheesy flavours
Come to this part only when you know the cheese desire has subsided. And then – have fun! Cheesy flavours can be included in a vegan diet with compassion!
Of the commercial brands of straight-up, dairy-free cheese alternatives, I like the following: Vegusto No-Moo Melty (the best for 'cheese on toast'), Vegusto Mild Aromatic (good enough to have with chutney on a sandwich), and at a push (for mixing with other things like baked beans, putting on pizzas and so on), I also think Tesco 'Free From' Soya Mild is okay. But only okay, really. In the USA, I have heard Daiya is good, though haven't tried myself.
Personally, I opt for making my own most of the time, and you may have seen my vegan cheese board post where I include a recipe for baked almond feta and a vegan cashew cheese (neither of them mine!).
If you need a final topping, say for a pasta dish or vegan shepherd's pie, mix some nutritional yeast flakes with ground almonds and salt to make a vegan parmesan. Need a vegan ricotta style cheese for lasagne or pizza? Then mush some firm tofu with lemon juice, garlic, salt, olive oil, chopped basil and nutritional yeast – bingo!
Nutritional yeast, in fact, is one of the best vegan foodstuffs for giving a cheesy flavour, and there are many recipes across the web for great vegan cheese sauces (including my Mushroom & Sweetcorn Cheezy Jackets recipe!).
7. Stop thinking you are “giving up” cheese and dairy – think of what you'll gain
Remember that milk and dairy products were never yours to take in the first place. Milk belongs to the cow and her calf, not humans, so I think to change the way you think about cheese and other dairy products like this, helps to 'let go' of them, in order to bring in the new joys of being vegan and living compassionately.
And you have so much to gain from removing dairy products from your life – you are giving to animals, bettering your health, and improving the outlook for the planet that you live on. So think about the benefits of removing cheese and dairy from your diet. You are not “giving up” anything – but you are gaining so much.
Resources and information:
Are you a vegan who has your own tips to share on going dairy-free? Please do leave a comment if so, I would love to hear from you!