Healthy Habits: The Smart Girl’s Guide to Milk Alternatives

I try to limit my dairy intake as a general rule. Too much dairy often takes a toll on my skin and leaves me feeling sluggish. But I’m not going to lie—I can’t resist the occasional butter pecan ice cream. According to many researchers and scientists, cow milk is bad for you because there is Excess calcium from milk and other foods may increase the risk of prostate cancer. Milk sugars may be linked to a slightly higher risk of ovarian cancer. Milk from cows given growth hormones contains higher levels of a chemical that may increase the risk of some cancers. So, with that being said, I’ve been trying to opt for non-dairy alternatives in that department. But with so many milk options out there—from nut milks to coconut to hemp and everything in between—it can be hard to know which one to choose! So I did what I always do when I have diet questions and reached out to different nutritionists that I follow for their take on the matter. I was given a rundown on several popular cow’s milk alternatives, which I am sharing with everyone below…

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1. Soy Milk. Soy milk is to be one of the most popular non-dairy alternatives there is. The Starbuck Soy Latte has become almost as ubiquitous as it’s dairy counterpart. But despite its widespread availability and easy source of non-animal protein, some recommends against having soy in your diet in general—especially in this processed form. Soy contains phytoestrogens that can disrupt hormones, with prevalent side effects including acne, hypothyroid, infertility and even cancer.

Lastly, soy milk made from soybeans is not recommended for people with a FODMAP intolerance or who are in the elimination phase of the low-FODMAP diet. FODMAPs are a type of short-chain carbohydrate naturally present in some foods. They can cause digestive issues such as gas and bloating. However, soy milk made from soy protein isolate can be consumed as an alternative.

2. Almond Milk. Almond milk is a contender for “best overall milk alternative” in Sam’s book. It’s lacking in calcium, but loaded with Vitamin D and E. Almond milk is a natural source of vitamin E, a group of antioxidants that help protect the body from disease-causing substances known as free radicals. It’s also low in calories for anyone for whom that is a concern. Just make sure you choose a variety with no added sugar and watch out for carrageenan (a harmful additive) on the ingredients list. Also, make the most of the nutrients and health benefits of almonds, choose brands of almond milk that contain a higher content of almonds, around 7–15%.

3. Coconut Milk. Real coconut milk is another amazing pick! It is a great source of manganese and MCT fats. The lauric acid present in coconut milk is even antibacterial. Opt for a minimally processed variety without additives like carrageenan or added sugar.

4. Oats Milk. According to Daisy Coyle, APD, oat milk is high in total fiber and beta-glucan, a type of soluble fiber that forms a thick gel as it passes through the gut. The beta-glucan gel binds to cholesterol, reducing its absorption in the body. This helps lower cholesterol levels, particularly LDL cholesterol, the type associated with an increased risk of heart disease. What’s more, research has shown that beta-glucan may help increase feelings of fullness and lower blood sugar levels after a meal. Oat milk is also cheap and easy to make at home.

5. Rice Milk. Rice milk has more carbohydrates than cow’s milk, without the fat or protein. It’s basically just starchy sugar water with very few real nutrients. Rice milk is what people who suffer from severe food allergies to dairy and nuts often turn to, but it’s not the best option out there if you can drink the others without issue. Rice Dream is a good option for those protein shakes.

6. Hemp Milk. Hemp milk is made from the seeds of the hemp plant, Cannabis sativa. This is the same species used to make the drug cannabis, also known as marijuana. 

Hemp milk has a slightly sweet, nutty taste and a thin, watery texture. It works best as a substitute for lighter milk such as skim milk. It is a good option for vegans and vegetarians since one glass provides 2–3 grams of high quality, complete protein, with all the essential amino acids. 

What’s more, hemp milk is a source of two essential fatty acids: the omega-3 fatty acid alpha-linolenic acid and the omega-6 fatty acid linoleic acid. Your body cannot make omega-3s and omega-6s, so you must obtain them from foods.

Lastly, unsweetened hemp milk is very low in carbohydrates, making it a great option for those who want to reduce their carb intake. If this is a priority for you, avoid sweetened varieties because they can contain up to 20 grams of carbs per cup (240 ml).

7. Goat’s Milk. This one obviously isn’t non-dairy, but we had to include it, as it’s also become a popular alternative to cow’s milk. Goat’s milk is lower in casein and lactose than cow’s milk, and only contains A2 casein, not A1 (A1 is the protein that is linked to inflammation and allergies). This means that many people who cannot have cow’s milk will do fine with goat’s milk. Goat’s milk is also higher in MCT fats than cow’s milk, and it is easier to absorb nutrients from goat’s milk than cow’s milk.

8. Macadamia Milk. Macadamia milk is made mostly of water and about 3% macadamia nuts. It’s fairly new to the market, and most brands are made in Australia using Australian macadamias.

The low carbohydrate content also makes it a suitable option for people with diabetes or those looking to reduce their carb intake. Also, macadamia milk is a great source of healthy monounsaturated fats, with 3.8 grams per cup (240 ml). Increasing your intake of monounsaturated fats may help reduce blood cholesterol levels, blood pressure and the risk of heart disease, especially if it replaces some saturated fat or carbohydrates in your diet.

9. Quinoa Milk. Quinoa milk is made from water and quinoa, an edible seed that is commonly prepared and consumed as a grain. The whole quinoa grain is very nutritious, gluten-free and rich in high-quality protein. While quinoa has become a very popular “superfood” over recent years, quinoa milk is fairly new to the market. For this reason, it is slightly more expensive than other non-dairy milk and can be a little harder to find on supermarket shelves.

It has a fairly well-balanced nutrition profile compared to other non-dairy kinds of milk. It is comparatively low in fat with moderate amounts of protein, calories, and carbs. Quinoa milk is a good plant-based source of complete protein for vegetarians and vegans. If it is available at your local supermarket, then it could be worth trying.

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different vegan glasses of milk on a table: hazelnut, rice, soy and almond milk substitute for dairy milk

There are a few things to consider when choosing a cow’s milk alternative, including nutrient content, added sugars, cost, and additives. Reading food labels will help you understand what’s in the milk you are buying.

There is no one milk that’s ideal for everyone. The taste, nutrition, and cost of these alternatives can vary considerably so it might take a while to find the one that’s best for you.

Which milk alternative do you prefer?

I’m an almond milk gal myself, but rice dream milk is great too.

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