I received a recent question about dairy and it is definitely a timely topic. With all of the milk/dairy alternatives these days, it can be confusing to know which one to pick and why.
Although soy, almond, rice, and coconut milks are all increasing in popularity as “healthier” choices, dairy is still considered part of a healthy diet. Let’s start by taking a look at a comparison of nutrition facts between the different kinds of milk available these days:
All of the above nutrition information is for one 8 oz serving. Cow’s milk will all have the same amount of protein and carbohydrate per serving. The only difference between skim, 1%, 2%, and whole milk is fat, and thus calorie content. The coconut milk in the table above is the kind found in the refrigerated section next to all the other milk alternatives, NOT the canned kind. The beverage coconut milk is more watered down and with more added ingredients than the canned variety, which is meant more for cooking.
Looking at the other milk options, most have only half (or less) the protein of cow’s milk. As you can also see from the differences in carbohydrate content, many also have loads of added sugar for taste. All cow’s milk/dairy has naturally occuring sugar in the form of lactose, so any dairy product will have at least that much sugar (plain yogurt, for example).
A little over 1 gram of the fat in 1% milk is saturated fat, while whole milk has just over 4.5 grams of saturated fat per serving. For that reason, it is recommended that most dairy you choose be low fat (skim or 1%). When you consider all of the other beneficial nutrients found in milk (high quality protein, calcium, etc), a little saturated fat is not an issue. Especially in the context of an overall healthy diet. While some plant foods have a fair amount of calcium in them, the absorption of calcium is improved in the presence of lactose and vitamin D (found in milk) and decreased in the presence of fiber and phytates (found in plant foods).
Dairy protein also comes out on top when considering a protein supplement. Cow’s milk is made up of 2 proteins: casein (80%) and whey (20%). Whey is considered the best for muscle protein synthesis because of it’s rapid absorption and the quality of dairy protein. Animal proteins have large amounts of all 9 essential amino acids in a form that is easily digestible and this is what makes them “high quality” proteins. Whey also seems to be the best source of leucine, the most important amino acid when it comes to muscle building.
For those who do not consume any animal products or who choose to avoid dairy, I would recommend soy milk as the next best alternative. Soy is one of the only plant proteins that contains an adequate amount of all of the 9 essential amino acids and provides several other beneficial phytonutrients (plant-based nutrients). While there has been some concern over the health and safety of consuming soy in recent years, all the research I have read has suggested that consuming whole, minimally processed soy (think tofu, whole soy beans/edamame, soy milk, etc) is safe and provides health benefits.
This has all been a somewhat long way to say that, unless you’re lactose intolerant or have some other reason for avoiding dairy, I typically recommend it as a better choice over the dairy alternatives. Milk/dairy products are a great way to get calcium, vitamin D, and high quality protein throughout the day. However, as with all caloric beverages, you should also consider the calories milk is providing in the context of your overall diet. If you have small children who have transitioned to milk, it is also important to remember that milk and other beverages are filling and should be monitored so your child doesn’t fill up before eating their meals.