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Milk Alternatives

Best Milk Alternatives for Your Health

“No human who has been fully weaned should be drinking milk.” You may have heard this comment from those who insist that milk is unhealthy. Or maybe you’re concerned about the welfare of the cows involved in producing it, or its impact on the environment. Maybe you’ve gone vegan and have therefore cut out all animal products from your diet and lifestyle.

You could even be one of the estimated 65 percent of adults who can’t tolerate the lactose in cow’s milk. Whatever the reason you may have banned milk from your diet, our family practice doctors wanted to explore the various alternatives to cows milk that are available today. 

Be aware, however, that cow’s milk, especially the low-fat variety, confers a number of health benefits. Cow’s milk can…

  • reduce the chance of developing osteoporosis, high blood pressure, and strokes
  • help build strong bones, teeth, and nails
  • aid in weight loss, due it it’s high level of protein

But there are non-milk alternatives that can be just as healthy. Because there are more than a dozen non-dairy milk products available, it can be difficult to select the right one for you, so here’s a primer on the most popular types.

Soy

Soy-based milk substitutes are the most popular because they’re the closest in nutrition to cow’s milk. A cup contains eight grams of protein and about 80 calories (cow’s milk also contains eight grams of protein per cup, and between 120 and 150 calories, depending on the type). Soy is also rich in fiber, antioxidants, and polyunsaturated fats.

Soy, however, has been implicated in thyroid, dementia, and hormonal issues, so if you opt for soy, you might want to keep this in mind and do more research. In addition, some people can have severe allergic reactions to soy.

On the other hand, soy is a known as a complete source of plant protein, meaning it contains all nine essential amino acids that the body must obtain from food. If you’re vegetarian or vegan and can tolerate it, soy is unmatched in its ability to deliver necessary nutrients.

Almond

Unlike soy-based milk, almond milk contains very little protein (about one gram per cup), so you’ll have to obtain protein from other sources. It’s also rich in vitamin E. If you’re counting calories, almond milk has only about 30 calories per cup.

Oat

If you have soy or nut allergies, this could be a good alternative. It contains no cholesterol and is low in fat and high in fiber. Unfortunately, flavored types are also high in sugar and calories (between 120-160 calories per cup).

Flax

Nutritionally, flax milk is low in protein. It also contains little calcium, unless it’s fortified.

Much of the benefit of flax comes from its high-fiber content and abundant alpha linoleic acids, which are known for preventing heart attacks, lowering cholesterol and high blood pressure, and has even been found to reverse hardening of the arteries (atherosclerosis).

Hemp

This is a popular milk alternative because of its nutty flavor, although some find the flavor too “earthy.” At about 80 calories and five grams of protein per cup, it is loaded with heart-healthy omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, along with iron.

On the downside, it is loaded with sugar, and does not contain calcium or vitamins D or B12.

A few tips

Besides its positive impact on the environment, another advantage of non-dairy milk is that it is shelf-stable, so you can stock up with fewer trips to the grocery store. In general, try to select brands with the least amount of additives and sugar.

Good Housekeeping recommends you look for the following when selecting milk alternatives:

  • at least seven-eight grams of protein per serving
  • as few ingredients as possible
  • the words “unsweetened” or “zero grams added sugar”
  • limited saturated fat (especially in those made with coconut or added protein)
  • less than 140 milligrams of sodium per cup
  • fortification with calcium and vitamin D
  • nutrients you’re personally concerned about (such as omega-3 fatty acids)

In addition, skip those labeled “barista blend,” which produce a good froth but are loaded with extra sugar. They also recommend looking for blends that contain vitamin B12, vitamin A, and DHA/EPA omega 3s if you’re adhering to a vegan diet. 

In short, the alternatives to cow’s milk available today are almost endless. If you make nutritionally smart choices, there’s no reason milk substitutes can’t be as healthy for you as the real thing.

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