Saturday, January 29, 2011

Family Food Challenge #1: Dairy-Free

The last remaining dairy products in our house: yogurt starter, Parmesan cheese, a bit of cream cheese, and malted milk mix (bought in a moment of weakness from a begging child). All have been thrown out except the yogurt starter. Someone around here will want it.

Well, it is almost February and we promised ourselves that we would start off 2011 with a monthly family food challenge. Of course, things got crazy in January so we are not off to a good start. But now I am back and ready to go! So, the Prager household is going dairy-free this month. As it is, we probably eat less dairy than the average, but we do eat it. The timing is perfect as I just finished reading The China Study by T. Colin Campbell. I have found the book to be very informative without being too technical. It is full of interesting statistics and studies on the effects of an animal vs. plant diet on the human body. Of course, in additional to health reasons, there are ethical reasons to do this as well.

The Why

As a non-meat eater for most of my adult life, I am often asked questions about how I get enough protein and iron in my diet. My response is that I get plenty via soy and vegetables and that the American diet contains too much protein. I also have annual blood work done and my iron levels have always been normal. With this decision, no doubt there will be additional questions about adequate calcium and vitamin D. From all that I have read, I am certain that dairy is overrated in terms of health benefits. Yes, dairy products provide calcium and vitamin D. However, these nutrients come at a high price. We are eating animal products that contain a lot of saturated fats and too much protein. The China Study is full of evidence that eating a much lower protein diet (e.g. a plant-based diet) decreases rates of heart disease, other vascular diseases, diabetes, autoimmune diseases, and many kinds of cancer. The bottom line is that dairy is not essential to the human diet. We are simply accustomed to eating it in Western cultures. There are plenty of all essential nutrients (except for vitamin B-12) from plant food. For more detailed information, I really encourage you to read The China Study. Another couple of decent books on nutrition are Ultra-Metabolism and The Ultra Mind Solution by Mark Hyman.

Although my cholesterol tests have always come back within normal range, I now see there is room for improvement. My total cholesterol when eating dairy and eggs is 187. My LDLs (bad cholesterol) are 82; HDLs (good cholesterol) are 87, and triglycerides are 92. Again, these are all within a “healthy” range. After discovering that a total cholesterol level below 150 virtually eliminates the risk of cardiovascular diseases, I decided to aim for a number closer to 150 than 200. I am hoping that a few simple tweaks of my diet will get me there.

In addition to the health issues, there are plenty of ethical reasons to question dairy. The dairy industry doses cows up with plenty of hormones and antibiotics, all of which end up in our dairy products. The extra hormones contribute to kids entering puberty earlier. The widespread use of antibiotics is contributing to antibiotic resistance in treating humans. On the moral front, baby cows are taken away from their mothers just days after they were born so the mothers can be milked. Female calves are kept to breed and the males turn into veal in a few short months after being fed a high fat diet or used for low-grade hamburger meat served at your friendly fast food joint. And many of these animals are not treated nicely either while they are alive or, unfortunately, during death. You can read book after book of accounts of how animals are raised and slaughtered. There is no other conclusion that can be reached except that animals suffer. So while I do not eat cows, my consumption of dairy contributes to this suffering. There are countless books on the subject. Some of my favorites include In Defense of Food and The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan and Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer (it's worth noting that both of these authors are advocates of thoughtful eating over any one "diet").

What Are We Giving Up?

Before I give you the list, let me say that I have cheated a bit. We knew we were going to do this in December so our transition has actually been made. We have been trying some alternative cheeses for the kids this last month, most of it unsuccessful. On the other hand, the soy-based sour cream has turned out to be just fine.

Cheese: Up until December, the kids had been eating a cheese sandwich for lunch at school most days. It is definitely challenging to find a substitute as the kids do not love PB & J or hummus sandwiches and school does not have a microwave. I will save you some time in experimenting with alternative cheese products. Soy cheese is not very tasty (we already knew that). The best alternative that I have found is Daiya, which is made from arrowroot. But it comes in only two flavors: cheddar and mozzarella – not very exciting and it still has a lot of fat. Lily likes the Daiya somewhat while Semira absolutely hates it. For Steve and me, our cheese fetishes greatly diminished upon moving to Laramie. The selection of the cheeses we typically liked (very aged cheddars and blue cheeses) is so limited that here wasn’t any real temptation to indulge as much. Seven years ago, I said that I could never be vegan because I couldn’t give up cheese. Now I am coming around on this. That said, the Daiya is starting to grow on us a bit. And for the record, we probably won't be vegan - more like 95% animal free.

Sour Cream: I like it, but the kids love it. We are going to use Tofutti sour cream for a while, although I hate the ingredient list. Like the Daiya, it is still a processed food product. While it satisfies my ethical issues with dairy, it falls short on the health front. Hopefully we can wean the kids off of this and onto just salsa and guacamole in the near future.

Butter: This is not really a biggie. The kids eat butter on pancakes and we occasionally cook with it (I am obviously not much of a baker). These are very easy workarounds. Our current choice is Earth Balance. Earth Balance actually tastes pretty good and isn't half bad for cooking.

Milk: We don’t drink cow milk. Our kids never have other than the occasional Horizon organic milk boxes for school lunch (and only Lily liked them). At home we drink soy milk. Lily and Steve will drink a glass of soy milk while Semira and I only use it on oatmeal and cereal. Last year, we were making homemade yogurt. After much experimenting, it did turn out better with cow milk compared to soy milk. The texture with soy is pretty runny. The bigger issue is that the yogurt starter has powdered milk, casein, and other dairy ingredients in it. So if we want to make even soy yogurt, we will need an alternative. It is really not that big of a deal. Yogurt is not a significant food item for any of us. Other than eating it in Israel and Costa Rica on vacation, we haven’t had yogurt in the house for months now.

Ice Cream: I had been buying a Ben & Jerry’s ice cream a treat each week. I have also bought soy ice cream before. It isn’t half bad. But again, it is not a great food choice as it is pretty processed. Sorbet will be a good substitute. It is not as exciting, but the kids will get over it.

Other prepackaged food with milk products (whey, casein, etc.): Really, I read labels already so this is just a matter of making smart choices. The biggest issue is going to be cookies for school snacks. Our choices of vegan cookies in Laramie are quite limited. I may need to start baking, which is not something that excites me.


We have two exceptions to our challenge. My kids eat school lunch a handful of days a month when the yummy dining choice is a lacto-vegetarian option like cheese pizza, mac and cheese, bean burrito, etc. I am not going to restrict them from eating their garbage lunches on these days. I struggle with being too restrictive on them and the crap called school lunch is a big treat. So for now, they can enjoy their treat. (School lunches and chemical food are topics for other discussions).

Finally, our friends know we don’t eat meat, but the dairy restriction is new. If we get invited out and dinner involves dairy that we can’t avoid, we will eat it. I am not into being rude.

Well, that’s it. Wish us luck! How hard can it be, right?


  1. Whew, you are a better woman than I am, that's for sure. I don't know how you do it, but keep up the good work! I wish I had more will power about food...the new choices I've been trying to make are hard enough to keep up with! I will live vicariously virtually vegan through you:)

  2. I'm thrilled to hear this! I hope you manage to go beyond the month (did you pick the shortest month of the year on purpose?).
    Cheese was definitely the hardest for us to give up, but finally did for the ethical reasons. I will say, the longer you go without cheese, the easier it gets. And, it sounds like you know too much to eat it again anyway.
    I've thus far read the first 29 pages of the China Study, and am even more thankful that we gave it up.
    We love Daiya for melting and for sprinkling on tacos and such.

    Check out my latest blog post!:

  3. Interesting post! I was recently debating with myself whether my love of cheese and ice cream was worth the inevitable cardiovascular disease. I still haven't decided; that's how much I love cheese and ice cream. Perhaps my internal debate will need to be informed by the China Study....

    For lunch box ideas, check out "Vegan Lunch Box" and "Vegan Lunch Box Around the World." The author blogs at She goes quite a bit beyond what I would do in terms of presentation, but she's a cookbook author.

    Another suggestion would be to invest in two of those Aladdin-style hot food thermoses; you can heat up leftovers (or lunch-specific food, of course) in the morning, pack the thermoses, and the girls can have their hot lunch from home.

    Good wishes on your endeavor!

  4. E: I see you've added the blog, The Art of NonConformity. James started reading his stuff last November and is a fan.