One of the most frequently asked questions I get about keto is: “Can I eat keto without dairy?”
Or, put differently, is a dairy-free keto diet possible?
I can see why this question comes up a lot. A ton of keto recipes (and posts on social media) appear very dairy-heavy. Many keto breads, baked items, and other savory dishes seem to be dairy-based. The truth is that eating keto really has nothing to do with whether or not you want to be dairy-free.
Remember that the basis of a keto diet is lowering your glucose intake. This is what allows your body to shift from burning carbs (sugar) for fuel to fat and ketones.
From there, ensuring you have adequate protein and fat on your plate is all you need to do. Seeing tons of cheese and dairy posted by those eating keto can make it confusing. Remember that on keto or any way of eating, just because a food is “allowed” doesn't mean you have to eat it!
Yes, it's as easy as that.
I know a lot of people feel that they can't eat dairy-free keto because they want to enjoy the keto breads and things like pizza crusts made with cheese. This may be true. You may want to enjoy those foods, but eating those foods has nothing to do with whether or not you're in ketosis.
So, the short answer to the question “Can I eat keto without dairy?” is YES! Absolutely.
Will you feel a bit limited in your choices? Sure. But that's true of many different ways of eating that call for avoiding certain foods.
When I first ate keto back in 2010, I was already eating Paleo. My keto diet at the time was then by default dairy-free. This was long before keto had hit the mainstream or social media was very popular. Now that keto has become a hot topic, a lot of people are asking if they can eat dairy-free keto.
So I started out simply paying attention to the carbs I ate, without trying too hard to cut them way back. I counted the carbs I ate each day, aiming for 30 grams but going over it now and then and not stressing about it. (I’d later come to learn that I was essentially eating the 30 grams of net carbs— total carbs minus fiber—on the days when I ate closer to 40 or 45 grams total carbs.)
I also omitted starchy and sugary foods. Since I was already eating Paleo, this wasn’t difficult, but it did require that I pay more attention to my food than I was accustomed to. My “keto-Paleo” diet was still focused on whole, unprocessed foods; it just had more healthy fats and fewer carbs, and it was dairy-free.
How to eat a dairy-free keto diet.
For dairy-free keto, lean on avocados, coconut, nuts and seeds, healthy fats and oils (both for cooking and added to meals as in salad dressing), and fattier cuts of meat and eggs for your daily fat intake and to replace cheese and milk in a dish. When I first ate keto, I was dairy-free for the first year and a half! It’s very possible; just stay focused on what you can eat, not what you can’t!
All of the recipes in Keto Quick Start note when they contain dairy, so you can avoid it if you need to. My previous books (Practical Paleo and The 21-Day Sugar Detox series) are all dairy-free and many are also keto-friendly, so that’s another resource for recipes.
Healthy dairy-free fats to eat on keto
If a fat or oil is found as is in nature, in real, whole foods—like fatty fish, avocado, or dairy—it’s among the healthiest fats to eat. I consider both butter and ghee to be naturally occurring, real-food fats. Yes, both require some processing, but that processing is purely mechanical (churning) and doesn’t introduce anything that isn’t present in fresh whole milk, straight from the cow. That’s about as naturally occurring as you can get when talking about a food that isn’t in its original, from- the-cow form. While some people who eat dairy-free can eat butter, some can't. If you can't eat butter, try ghee. I can't eat most cow dairy easily but ghee, which has the dairy proteins removed and is simply the fat of the butter, works great for me.
Real, whole foods rich in healthy fats that are dairy-free include the following:
- bacon (yes, really! Especially from pastured pork!)
- chicken with the skin on (especially dark meat)
- coconut chips
- dark-meat turkey
- fatty fish, like salmon and herring
- plain, full-fat dairy-free yogurt (without flavors, sweeteners, stabilizers, or additives)
To replace cheese as a topping or a flavoring in keto recipes, try nutritional yeast (store in the refrigerator once opened). You'll see it called for in some recipes in Keto Quick Start and works really well to add that cheesy flavor!
If you want to eat keto but you can't have dairy, you definitely can!
For more on eating keto, check out these episodes of The Balanced Bites Podcast:
Share your best dairy-free keto tips in the comments, I'd love to hear them.