The Keto diet can seem restrictive. You can’t eat bananas, sweet potatoes, and other high-carb foods.
What about dairy on Keto? That depends.
It depends, first of all, on the type of dairy. Some dairy is Keto-friendly, but most of the highly-processed produce at your local mega-mart probably won’t pass the test.
It also depends on your dairy tolerance. If dairy doesn’t agree with you, it shouldn’t be on the menu.
Today you’ll learn all about Keto dairy: low-carb options, what to avoid, beneficial nutrients, and how to do dairy-free Keto. Let’s get started.
What Is Dairy?
Dairy refers to any food produced from or containing the milk of mammals. It needn’t contain a specific milk component (like lactose) to fit the bill.
Most dairy products are derived from cow’s milk, but they can also be derived from goat’s milk, sheep’s milk, and (everyone’s childhood favorite) camel’s milk.
So when we talk about dairy, we’re talking about milk, yogurt, cheese, butter, ghee, cream, custard, kefir, casein, whey, ice cream, frozen yogurt, and anything else made from milk.
Is Dairy Keto-Friendly?
In some instances, yes.
It depends on the carbs in a given dairy product and a person’s dairy tolerance. Let’s set dairy tolerance aside and focus on the carb criterion for now.
When you ask if a food is Keto-friendly, you’re essentially asking if that food is sufficiently low enough in carbs to promote ketosis. Ketosis is the fat-burning state driving the potential benefits of the Keto diet.
To enter ketosis, you generally must limit carbs to under 10% of daily calories. (For some people, closer to 5%).[*] It’s the main rule of Keto, and also the hardest to follow.
In more concrete terms, eating Keto means limiting net carbs (net carbs = total carbs - fiber - sugar alcohols) to between 20 and 50 grams per day. This doesn’t leave much latitude for rice, yams, apples, or bananas.
Let’s return to Keto dairy. For a dairy product to be Keto-friendly, it must pass one rule: It must be low in carbs.
Low-Carb Dairy and Dairy To Avoid
Most commercial dairy products aren’t Keto friendly. Why? Because they contain loads of added sugar.
Picture the great wall of fruity yogurts in the dairy aisle. Food manufacturers make these treats addictive by saturating them with sucrose, high-fructose corn syrup, and “natural” forms of sugar like honey.
Most health-conscious people are aware of this.[*] They realize that chocolate milk, strawberry yogurt, and mint chip ice cream are Keto kryptonite.
But added sugar isn’t the only source of dairy carbs. You also have lactose.
Lactose is a naturally-occurring milk sugar, but just because it’s natural doesn’t mean it’s healthy or Keto-friendly. Be aware that most types of milk—including whole milk, half and half, and evaporated milk—contain around 10 grams of lactose per serving.
The takeaway? Even with no refined or natural sugars added, milk is not Keto.
The Keto dairy list, by contrast, consists of dairy products low in both added sugar and lactose.
Keto dairy list:
- Heavy cream or heavy whipping cream
- Sour cream
- Most cheeses—mozzarella, gouda, brie, muenster, Monterey jack, mascarpone, provolone, cheddar, cream cheese, cottage cheese, parmesan, blue cheese, etc.
- Unsweetened kefir
- Unsweetened Greek yogurt
Not a bad selection, right?
Beneficial Nutrients in Dairy
The nutrients in Keto-friendly dairy can be broken into two categories:
- Macronutrients (macros)
- Micronutrients (vitamins, minerals, and other compounds)
#1: Macronutrients in Dairy
In terms of macros, low-carb dairy is either high in fat, high in protein, or both.
The fat is mostly saturated fat. That’s why butter is semi-solid at room temperature.
But wait, doesn’t saturated fat give you heart disease? While it’s true that higher saturated fat intakes can increase LDL cholesterol levels (a marker of increased risk), multiple large reviews have found no link between dietary saturated fat and heart disease risk.[*][*]
Plus, butter and ghee are great for cooking because they don’t oxidize (like vegetable oils) at high temperatures. They’re perfectly healthy fats on Keto.
Dairy also contains two forms of protein: casein and whey. Both these milk proteins score highly on digestibility, protein efficiency (how well they stimulate growth), and biological value (how well the protein is incorporated into bodily tissues).[*]
Here’s the bottom line: if tolerated, casein or whey protein powder is a fine addition to a Keto smoothie.
#2: Micronutrients in Dairy
Beyond macros, here’s a list of beneficial vitamins, minerals, and other compounds found in Keto dairy:
- Conjugated linoleic acid (CLA). May help with fat loss and heart disease risk.[*]
- Calcium. For supporting bone health.
- Vitamin A. To boost immunity.
- Lactoferrin: To aid bone regeneration and immunity[*]
- Alpha-lactalbumin and beta-lactoglobulin: May be used for allergies and immune support.[*]
- Immunoglobulins (IGG, IGA): To boosts immunity against infection.
- Lysozyme: To help fight infections.[*]
Who Should Avoid Dairy?
Two groups of people should avoid dairy:
- Those with a dairy allergy
- Those with a dairy intolerance
In the case of dairy allergy, even trace amounts of milk can cause life-threatening anaphylaxis. For reference, most people allergic to dairy are allergic to casein, alpha-lactalbumin, and beta-lactoglobulin.[*]
Dairy intolerance is much more common. Believe it or not, nearly 65% of people are lactose intolerant[*], and many folks have a whey or casein sensitivity too.
If you can’t handle dairy, don’t worry. A dairy-free Keto diet is highly doable.
Just get your fat and protein from meat, fish, olive oil, coconut oil, avocados, nuts, seeds, and eggs, and a calcium boost from sardines, spinach, and turnip greens.
It might make you sad to give up cheese, but your comfort is worth it.
Dairy On Keto?
Including dairy in your Keto diet not only opens up the menu, but can also provide a rich source of extra nutrients. For example, it can be hard to get enough calcium (~1 gram a day) without consuming milk products.[*]
Hard, but not impossible. If you can’t tolerate dairy, don’t force it. Listen to your body, adjust your diet, and enjoy your dairy-free life.