Home > Blog

Is Your Dairy-free Diet Giving You a Vitamin D Deficiency

By Kaitlin Racine  •   February 13, 2018

Photo Credit: by NeONBRAND Unsplash.com
Photo Credit: by NeONBRAND, Unsplash.com

You probably recall seeing ads and commercials with celebrities sporting milk-staches and the motto, “Got Milk?” It was one of the leading health campaigns of the 90s, led by the American Dairy Association designed to instill a lifelong habit of a milk-rich diet in the populace by implying milk will help you grow – and stay – big and strong.

And they were right. Milk is full of calcium – a critical mineral your body needs to maintain your bones, teeth, and blood clotting; not to mention the transmission of nerve impulses, keeping your heart’s rhythm, as well as fighting off bacteria and viruses. But here’s the kicker – Vitamin D is what helps your body absorb those oh-so-important calcium levels, and without it, you could be in trouble. According to the National Institute of Health, “People who get too little Vitamin D may develop soft, thin, and brittle bones, a condition known as rickets in children and osteomalacia in adults.”

The two natural ways to get Vitamin D are through sunshine or your diet. Unfortunately, those options can have as many downsides as they do benefits. The skin damage and cancer risks from unprotected exposure to the sun’s UVA and UVB rays can be too high to risk, and the sunscreen you slather on to protect yourself prevents the absorption of Vitamin D. In order to get Vitamin D through your diet, dairy is likely your best bet. It provides more absorbable calcium per serving than any other food – even more than those leafy greens, legumes, fatty fish, and nuts. But it also has its detractors. Dairy products are high in saturated fats that can lead to a higher risk of heart disease. There’s also the fact that nearly 65 percent of the world’s population suffers from lactose intolerance (and up to even 90 percent for those of Eastern Asian descent, 70 percent of blacks, and Native Americans, and 50 percent of Hispanics). This can make getting the appropriate levels of Vitamin D even more difficult when dairy is off the table.

In a recent study by the University of Toronto's Faculty of Medicine, the team analyzed 1,495 men and women and discovered that those who were genetically predisposed to lactose intolerance, had a lower intake of dairy products, and therefore lower Vitamin D blood levels. Co-author of the study, Ahmed El-Sohemy, a professor of nutrition at the University of Toronto's Faculty of Medicine in Canada concluded:

“These findings speak to the need for greater awareness for those who limit dairy because of lactose intolerance. They need to be mindful of getting enough Vitamin D from other fortified foods like certain brands of orange juice, or to consider trying lactose-free dairy products."

But it’s not just the lactose intolerant who could be at risk of not getting enough Vitamin D – according to the National Institute of Health, “Vitamin D-deficient diets are associated with milk allergy, lactose intolerance, ovo-vegetarianism, and veganism.” These diets rely heavily on dairy alternatives, and with the rise of so many plant-based milks on the market, twenty-one percent of Americans now report buying milk alternatives, and 15 percent admitting to buying less or no milk at all, according to the market research firm Mintel. With countless options available – soy, almond, hemp, rice, and coconut milks all give vegans and health-conscious consumers a lactose-free, and lower saturated fat option to pair with their cereal. And while many of these alternatives have been artificially fortified with calcium, it still might not provide enough Vitamin D.

With less people imbibing milk – whether by intolerance or dietary choices, this creates a much higher risk for Vitamin D deficiencies –it's estimated that about 1 billion people worldwide have low levels of the vitamin in their blood. And with these deficiencies, it creates a much higher risk of osteoporosis – a disease that causes low bone mass and deterioration of bone tissue, making bones more brittle and prone to fractures. While this is more directly linked to a lack of calcium, insufficient Vitamin D levels are a contributing factor due to reduced calcium absorption.

It’s not just your bones that could be suffering from your lack of dairy either. Deficiency of the vitamin has been linked to cancers, autoimmune diseases, severe asthma in children, cognitive impairment in older adults, and systemic inflammation that can cause heart disease. Researchers also believe that Vitamin D could play a role in the prevention and treatment of several diseases including Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes, hypertension, glucose intolerance, and multiple sclerosis.

So how can you tell if you should get your blood tested for Vitamin D levels? The signs of a deficiency are often difficult to spot due to their subtlety. A weak immune system and being prone to getting sick could be a sure fire sign, as Vitamin D helps you fight off viruses and bacteria. Research studies have shown that low levels of Vitamin D in the blood can increase the severity of pneumonia, as well as in children with lower respiratory tract infections. Excessive daytime fatigue and tiredness could also be a sign, as even slightly lower than normal blood levels can have a negative impact on energy levels. Lower back pain, and bone pain in general is another key indicator.

Several studies have shown a high prevalence of a deficiency in postmenopausal women associated with decreased bone mass and back pains. Slow healing wounds due to a lack of inflammation and infection control can also be prevalent. Bone mass loss, hair loss, and even muscle pain can also be signs that you’re not getting the amount of calcium and Vitamin D that you need.

If you think that you might be at risk, it’s a good idea to get your blood levels tested. The National Institute of Health reports that levels below 30 nmol/L (12 ng/mL) are too low for bone or overall health, and levels above 125 nmol/L (50 ng/mL) are probably too high. Levels of 50 nmol/L or above (20 ng/mL or above) are sufficient for most people. And the good news is that even if you are deficient and on a dairy-free diet, a regular Vitamin D supplement can get you back on track.


Kaitlin Racine is the editor-in-chief and founder of Literally, Darling a website about the pressing and pop-filled needs of millennial women. Her work has also been featured in The Huffington Post, Mamma Mia, and SheKnows.


The purpose of the above content is to raise awareness only and does not advocate treatment or diagnosis. This information should not be substituted for your physician's consultation and it should not indicate that use of the drug is safe and suitable for you or your (pet). Seek professional medical advice and treatment if you have any questions or concerns.