Growing up, we’ve all heard about dairy being an indispensable part of a healthy diet. Milk, in particular, used to be revered as a storehouse of calcium, Vitamin D and protein.
Today, however, the picture is udderly (sorry, couldn’t resist) different. As more and more consumers are ditching dairy for various health and environmental reasons, alt milks have become the new cash cow (I’ll stop now, promise).
But if the conflicting research on dairy and the overwhelming number of dairy and non-dairy products stocked in grocery aisles are making you addled. Fret not! Here’s how you can choose what’s best for you, according to nutrition experts:
First, let’s weigh the pros and cons
Vandana Sheth, LA-based registered dietitian nutritionist
and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “It also provides a good mix of other vital nutrients such as calcium, magnesium, potassium, riboflavin, folate, Vitamin B12 and is fortified with vitamin D,” adds the nutritionist.
study published in
The Lancet, people who consume at least two servings of milk, yogurt or cheese every day as part of their daily diet appear to have a significantly lower risk of heart disease and stroke than people who don’t eat dairy foods.
On the flip side, a high intake of full-fat dairy products has been linked to inflammation. In some cases, whey protein and casein found in milk can trigger or aggravate skin conditions like acne and rosacea.
Non Dairy: For those who choose not to or are unable to consume dairy, alt milks and other dairy-free substitutes may be a good option.
“The dairy alternative that is closest to cow’s milk in terms of nutrition profile is soy milk”, says Sheth. Almond milk is another dairy-free favorite. It’s packed with key nutrients like Vitamin E, omega-6 fatty acids, iron, calcium, selenium, potassium and zinc. Plus, it contains zero saturated fats.
If you’re allergic to dairy, nuts as well as soy, pea milk can be a great dairy milk substitute. One cup of pea milk contains 10 grams of protein, that’s more than cow’s milk and soy milk. Oat milk is yet another nutrient-rich option. It’s chock full of gut-healthy fiber, protein and omega-3 and omega-6 fats.
On the downside, alt milks are not suitable for infants, Sheth points out. In addition, if you don’t plan your non-dairy diet carefully, you could miss out on essential nutrients like Vitamin D, calcium and protein. It’s also important to note that overindulging on non-dairy foods can be just as harmful as binging on regular dairy products. For instance, excessive onsumption of almond milk can cause inflammation. Similarly, coconut milk should also be consumed in limited quantities as it contains high levels of saturated fats.
So, how to choose what’s right for you?
- Listen to your body: The top consideration is how you feel and perform physically, says Cynthia Sass, NYC-based performance nutritionist and specialist in sports dietetics. Pay attention to your body cues when you are and aren’t eating dairy. If dairy foods make you feel bloated or cause headache, fatigue or skin problems, you should quit immediately. But if you aren’t experiencing any health issues and enjoy eating dairy, there’s no need to change anything. The second crucial thing to remember is to practice moderation. Whether it’s dairy or non-dairy, eat in moderate quantities.
- Read the ingredient list and nutrition label: Just because a food item is dairy-free doesn’t mean it is healthier. “Make sure the dairy-free foods you eat are fortified with nutrients such as calcium, vitamin D, and vitamin B12,” says Sheth. Also, steer clear of milks, yogurts and cheeses that contain an array of unfamiliar additives. Ingredients like guar gum and tapioca starch are often added to plant-based milks to make them creamy like regular milk. “These thickening agents are generally recognized as safe, but other thickeners like carageenan may be linked to inflammation,” says Sass. “This is why I don’t recommend plant milks made with carrageenan, vegetable oils, gums, etc,” she adds.
- For infants and toddlers: ”Until the age of two, the only suitable milk beverage for ideal growth and development in children is cow’s milk (whole) or infant/toddler formula,” says Sheth. “If your child is sensitive or allergic to cow’s milk, there are specialized hypoallergenic formulas that can be considered,” adds the nutritionist. Sheth also recommends consulting with a dietitian to discuss your child’s unique situation and get guidance on how to proceed. “If you want to give plant-based milk to your child over the age of two, I would suggest soy milk as it provides seven to eight grams of protein per cup,” she says.
- Raw Milk Vs Pasteurized Milk: Don’t fall for the raw milk craze. It is in no way more nutritious than pasteurized milk, Sheth points out. Besides, bacteria like E.Coli and salmonella present in unpasteurized milk can make you susceptible to a host of food-borne diseases.
- Regular Milk Vs Organic Milk: Organic milk refers to milk that’s obtained from sustainably raised livestock. Organic milk is said to be free of antibiotics, synthetic hormones and pesticide residue. However, despite the difference in farming methods, both conventional milk and organic milk have the same nutrition profile and are safe for consumption, Sheth points out.
And now, if you’ve decided to cut out dairy altogether, here are a few nutritionist-approved tips to keep in mind:
- Start small. It’s better to start with small changes in your diet instead of completely eliminating dairy from day one. Begin with small swaps. For instance, trade regular milk with pea protein milk, soy milk or almond milk. Substitute greek yogurt with non-dairy yogurts made from soy, cashew or almond, Sheth suggests. Use avocado instead of shredded cheese on taco bowls, tahini instead of sour cream in sauces and pureed white beans seasoned with garlic and herbs in place of ricotta in your favorite recipes, recommends Sass.
- Stock up on non-dairy sources of protein. Protein is the building block of everything in our body, from skin and organs to muscles and bones. To avoid protein deficiency after quitting dairy, up your intake of foods like quinoa, brussel sprouts, tofu, chickpea, asparagus, black beans, eggs, fish and lean meat.
- Make up for missing calcium. Lack of calcium in your daily diet can make your bones weak and porous, putting you at risk of developing osteoporosis. Include more calcium-rich foods in your meals, like cooked collard greens, white beans, black eyed peas, chia seeds, sesame seeds and seaweed, suggests Sass. Broccoli, kale ans mustard greens are also great non-dairy sources of calcium, tells Sheth.
- Don’t Skimp on Vitamin D. Portobello mushrooms, especially those exposed to UV light are an excellent source of Vitamin D, says Sass. In addition, animal-based foods like wild Alaskan salmon, sardines, and whole pasture raised eggs also contain high amounts of Vitamin D, says the nutrition expert.
In addition, visit a registered dietitian who can help you identify your exact nutrition needs and customize recommendations based on your food preferences, budget, etc, suggests Sheth.
eatright.org and click on the ‘find a dietitian’ tab.