How To Think About Food + A Guide to Milk and Non-Dairy Alternatives

A few days ago, I was at the grocery store with my friend. She was scanning all the labels of the different kinds of milk. When I asked her why she doesn’t want to drink regular milk (as she has been for years), she said that “regular milk just has so many more calories than the others, and I don’t even like the taste of it.” While this is true – other versions, except soy milk, have about half of the calories – dairy milk has more to offer in terms of functional nutrition.

Those 86 calories in a cup of skim milk contain 8 grams of high-quality, muscle-building protein. The alternative milk drink she was eyeing – almond milk – has 45 calories, but it only has 2 grams of protein. Between the two, 86 calories and 8 grams of protein, or 45 calories and 2 grams of protein, the former has way more health benefits to offer you. Protein is satiating, so it will keep you fuller for longer; drinking 45 calories with nearly no protein probably won’t satiate you at all – so you might end up reaching for more food or another drink and eat more calories overall. In addition, if you’re drinking a milk drink after a workout, the protein in dairy milk can help rebuild and strengthen muscles; almond milk will not do the same.

The takeaway message: calories are important to look at, but so are other pieces of nutritional information like protein, fat, fiber, and sugars. If you just look at calories, your decision is skewed: of course you’ll pick the choice with fewer calories. Taking into account protein, fat, fiber, and sugars, however, will help you determine how a particular food will serve your body: will the protein help you build muscle and keep you satiated? Will the fiber keep you full until lunch? Will the fat lower the glycemic load of the meal? Or are you just eating 45 empty calories that do none of these?

Because my friend got me thinking about the different kinds of milk, I’ve written a guide with all of the pros and cons to all the milk alternatives.

Most people grow up drinking regular cow’s milk. With the introduction of soy milk, followed by almond, oat, coconut, and hemp milk, the choice – which milk should I drink? – became more complex. Each milk has their own niche, but if you’re not lactose intolerant, I would recommend sticking to regular dairy milk. Depending on what you’re looking for in a milk, though, each variety can be a healthy choice. Just be sure to grab unsweetened and unflavored versions of milk – the sweetened kinds can contain more than 180 calories per cup.

All of the nutritional information below is for unsweetened versions; sweetened versions contain more calories and sugars.

Dairy Milk, per cup, skim: 86 calories, 0 g fat, 12 g sugar, 0 g fiber, 8 g protein
2%: 122 calories, 4.8 g fat (3.1 g saturated fat), 12.35 g sugar, 0 g fiber, 8 g fiber

Pros: Dairy milk, a mix of 80% casein and 20% whey, is a great source of high-quality, muscle-building protein. With 8 grams of protein per cup, it’s an easy way to drink your protein without relying on processed protein shakes. In fact, it may even beat out such shakes in terms of muscle recovery: a study from the University of Connecticut found that chocolate milk is an ideal post-workout drink for refueling and building new muscle.

Dairy milk is also a natural source of calcium, whereas other milks are calcium-fortified. A study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that, among postmenopausal women, those who got their calcium from natural sources, rather than supplements, reaped the most benefits. Calcium, when ingested in combination with dairy, may also help with weight control: a 2002 study found that the combination of calcium and a certain amino acid found in dairy products increases muscle mass and leads to fat burning.

Cons: There are several studies that show a high correlation between consumption of dairy products and the risk of cardiovascular disease, although such studies have been challenged. In addition, some doctors believe that milk may contribute to the development of prostate and ovarian cancers – but other studies show that the vitamin D in dairy milk actually protect against cancer.

In terms of the issue of antibiotics and hormones used to treat cows, there are no studies that prove that ingesting dairy milk leads to the formation of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and the hormones that are used do not stay in their active form when ingested. If you’re worried or if you think the practice is unethical, you can buy antibiotic- and hormone-free milk.

Soy Milk, per cup, unsweetened: 80 calories, 4.3 g fat (0.5 g saturated fat), 1 g sugar, 1.5 g fiber, 7 g protein

Taste: Varies by brand; while some are “neutral-tasting,” others describe it as “planty” or “chalky.” Sweetened varieties, like vanilla and chocolate, often mask unpleasant flavors – but add lots of sugar.

Pros: Soy milk has roughly the same amount of calories and protein as skim dairy milk, but it also contains healthy unsaturated fats and a small amount of fiber. Some of the fats in soy milk are omega-3 fatty acids, which protect against heart disease and enhance cognitive development. In addition, research has shown that the monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats found in soy can help reduce blood levels of triglycerides and LDL cholesterol. Soy milk also has the added benefit of being vegan: it is derived solely from plant sources and thus contains phytochemicals – specifically, isoflavones – which have been shown to reduce the risk of cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and osteoporosis. In addition, it is free from hormones and antibiotics as well as lactose, making it a good choice for protein-craving lactose intolerants. Soy milk provides additional benefits for those over 50: it can prevent negative symptoms associated with menopause in women and reduce the risk of prostate cancer in men.

Cons: Unlike dairy milk, soy milk does not naturally contain calcium or vitamin B-12, but some versions are fortified with vitamins and minerals.There has been some controversy regarding the possible negative effects on high soy intake in men. Because soy (a phytoestrogen) mimics estrogen, it may affect hormone production in men. Specifically, high amounts can reduce the production of testosterone, thereby affecting reproductive abilities and sperm production.

Almond Milk, per cup: 45 calories, 3.5 g fat (0 g saturated), 0 g sugars, 1 g fiber, 2 g protein

Taste: A subtle almond/nutty flavor; slightly sweet

Pros: Almond milk’s biggest benefit is that it contains the least amount of calories of all non-dairy alternatives to dairy milk. In that respect, it’s a good choice for those looking to lose weight as well as those who don’t like the taste of milk but just use it on cereal or coffee drinks. While it doesn’t have a lot of protein, it still offers the same healthy fats found in almonds.

Cons: Unlike dairy and soy milk, almond milk contains very little protein; it also contains very little calcium (2 mg compared to the 300 mg in cow’s milk).Compared to cow’s milk, almond milk is relatively processed: it contains a number of preservatives and additives that make it shelf-stable and contribute to its texture. Most of the nutrients (except vitamin E) found in almond milk are added in, and research shows that natural dietary sources of vitamins and minerals are more readily absorbed than those added.

Oat Milk, per cup: 130 calories, 2.5 g fat (0 g saturated), 19 g sugars, 2 g fiber, 4 g protein

Taste: Mildly sweet, thin, watery. Not surprisingly, many think it “tastes like oatmeal.”

Pros: Oat milk is naturally low in fat and cholesterol. It is relatively high in fiber – some brands carry up to 4 grams – so it comes with the benefits of added satiety, stable blood sugar levels, and reduced cholesterol levels.

Cons: Even with the fiber, you’d be better off eating a bowl of oatmeal. Compared to oatmeal, which is one ingredient in itself – and contains more fiber and far less sugars – oat milk is very processed. It also contains two controversial ingredients: carrageenan, which has been linked with inflammation and irritable bowel disease, and vitamin A palmitate, which may lead to brittle bones.

Coconut Milk, per cup: 50 calories, 5 g fat (5 g saturated), 0 g sugars, 0 g fiber, 1 g protein

Taste: Sweet, creamy, rich, thick

Pros: Although all five grams of fat in coconut milk are saturated, these fats are medium chain fatty acids – different from the long chain fatty acids found in animal products – and are metabolized differently. Medium chain fatty acids are sent directly to the liver, where they are used (and burned) immediately as energy. Numerous studies show that these saturated fats are actually beneficial: they may increase metabolism, slow digestions, improve the immune system, and boost cognitive development.

Cons: Coconut milk is low in protein and doesn’t contain nearly as much calcium as dairy milk. Some brands contain added calcium, as well as other added vitamins and minerals. But this makes coconut milk relatively processed: most drinks contain more than just coconut and water, including preservatives and additives like carrageenan and vitamin A palmitate.

Hemp Milk, per cup: 70 calories, 6 g fat (0.5 g saturated), 0 g sugars, 0 g fiber, 2-4 g protein

Taste: Earthy, nutty, grainy

Pros: Hemp milk can be a good alternative for those with nut and dairy allergies. It’s lactose- and cholesterol-free, and is low in saturated fat. Most of the fats are polyunsaturated fats and omega-3 fatty acids, including alpha linoleic acid. Several studies have found that hemp seeds can improve immune system functioning, promote healthy skin and hair, and boost cognitive performance – but again, you’d be better off with unprocessed hemp seeds.

Cons: Hemp milk isn’t very high in protein. It also separates in coffee, making it unsuitable for lattes and chai drinks.


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