Dairy and Eggs in the Vegetarian Diet

While strict vegetarians consume no animal flesh or products, lacto-ovo vegetarians do drink milk and eat cheese, eggs and butter while avoiding animal flesh.

Dairy has its benefits and drawbacks. It is a rich source of calcium and protein, as well as Vitamin D in fortified milk. It can also be high in saturated fat and cholesterol (not to mention whatever hormones and antibiotics the animals it came from were injected with), and there is an increased risk of food borne illness with any animal product you may consume. The ugly specter of factory farming rears its head, too. Milk cows and laying hens are treated no better than slaughterhouse-bound beef, pork and chicken.

If you simply cannot bring yourself to eliminate dairy from your vegetarian diet (and I feel your pain, as I was raised lacto-ovo, myself), then minimize your risk and choose the healthiest options you can. Here are a few tips:

• If you can afford to buy organic, rBGH/rBST-free dairy products at the supermarket, then do so.

• Wean yourself off of whole milk. If you simply cannot stomach nonfat milk, drink 1% – it still tastes like and has the ‘mouth feel’ of milk.

• Reduced-fat and nonfat cheeses, depending on the brand and variety, are just as flavorful as their full-fat counterparts. Choose them whenever possible.

• If you use butter, keep it in the freezer (to avoid it going rancid, as you should only use it sparingly), and cut it with healthier oils such as canola or olive oil. For instance, if a recipe calls for 2 tablespoons of butter, use 1 tablespoon of butter and 1 tablespoon of a healthier oil. You still get the butter flavor without all the saturated fat and cholesterol.

• Be aware that while margarine is lower than butter in saturated fat and cholesterol, thanks to the hydrogenation process most are full of trans-fats, which are equally unhealthy if not actually worse, as they also lower HDL (“good”) cholesterol. If you’re going to use margarine, read the label carefully and purchase the product with the least amount of saturated fat, trans-fat and cholesterol altogether. Avoid anything that says ‘partially hydrogenated’ on the label.

• Know where your eggs and dairy products come from. Keep a few laying hens in your own yard, if possible. Patronize your local farmers’ market – they often sell cheese, eggs, and butter from small farms nearby. Chances are their animals live in far better conditions than any factory farm. Get to know your local farmers, and you’ll find out!