It only takes a quick stroll around any grocery store to realize just how many plant-based milk options are out there. But is non-dairy milk healthy? Here's what any plant-based beginner needs to know.
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The options for non-dairy milk are seemingly endless: almond, hemp, cashew, soy, oat, coconut, rice, hazelnut, quinoa, sweetened, unsweetened, with chocolate, banana, or strawberry flavor. But before we dive into which non-dairy milk might be best for your lifestyle, let's address whether or not these plant-based alternatives are even a healthier choice than dairy milk.
Well, first off: it turns out, cow's milk isn't actually all that good for us – despite what we grew up hearing.
Eating dairy can be hard on your body.
- Dairy is loaded with saturated fat, a major contributor to heart disease, inflammation of the brain, higher risk of stroke, and impaired memory. Need a motto? From heart vessels to brain vessels, DAIRY CLOGS.
- Dairy, especially cheese, is also often packed with sodium, which in excess can lead to hypertension.
- Cheese, in particular, has a compound called casein. Too much casein has also been linked to certain types of cancer.
- Full-fat milk is linked to inflammation and chronic inflammation can lead to diabetes, heart disease, cancer, obesity, Alzheimer's disease, digestive issues (like IBS and Crohn's disease), asthma, and more.
OK, so now that we have some (darn good) reasons to give up dairy, let's focus on the healthiest choices for replacing our milk.
The dairy industry claims non-dairy milk is stuffed to the brim with fillers and suspect ingredients. And while yes, this is true for some non-dairy milk on the market, but rest assured there are plenty of healthy options! It’s all about reading the nutrition label.
6 Quick Tips for Picking the Best Type of Non-Dairy Milk for Your Lifestyle
Taste is completely subjective, so we cannot wage on that – although my personal favorite is soy. When it comes to versatility, it really depends on what you’re using the non-dairy milk for: are you making delicious brownies, a hearty curry, or a warm cup of coffee? I assure you there is a vegan option for every occasion.
So, if taste and versatility are up to each person, what about nutrition? Which option is the healthiest non-dairy milk?
Spoiler alert: there’s no clear winner. But here's how you can easily pick the best type for your lifestyle.
Trying to lose weight on a plant-based diet? It may be wise to stay away from oat milk and replace it with cashew or almond milk instead. In general, the amount of calories in non-dairy milks usually correspond to the caloric profile of their main ingredient. Since oats are high in calories, it comes as no surprise that their milk would be high in calories too.
2. Total Fat
When it comes to total fat, hemp and oat milk take the cake, while quinoa milk sits at the bottom with a mere gram of fat per serving size. If you are following a whole foods plant-based diet and try to stay away from a lot of fan, quinoa milk is an excellent choice for you.
Please note that while hemp milk is indeed high in total fat, it’s rich in omega-3 essential fatty acids, which are necessary for a healthy brain function so that's something to consider!
When you look at the total amount of sugars in non-dairy milks, oat milk has the highest amount, with soy milk right behind. However, it’s worth pointing out that most plant milks, including almond, cashew, flax, hemp, and pea milk, have zero grams of added sugars.
When you go dairy-free or plant-based, a lot of folks are suddenly going to be worried about your protein intake. And don't get me wrong – protein is an important macronutrient! That said, you don't have to stress about getting enough when give dairy the boot as plant-based foods have plenty of protein. But what about non-dairy milks? They're not all created equally, on the protein front: soy and pea milks come out on top, while coconut, flax, and rice milk have close to zero.
Iron is another essential mineral, especially if you’re following a plant-based diet. Non-heme iron (plant derived) is not as easily absorbed as heme iron, which means that you should follow a well-designed whole food plant-based diet to make sure you get plenty. Pea milk has the highest amount of iron, while rice, cashew, and almond have the lowest.
6. Healthy-Bone-Related Minerals
Everyone's heard that drinking cow's milk helps build healthy bones, but interestingly enough this may not be the full story. People who consume dairy milk actually have a higher risk of bone fractures. That said, calcium and Vitamin D are essential for strong healthy bones, and soy milk has the highest amounts of both minerals per serving compared to other plant milks. Keep in mind though, that vitamins D and B12, are artificially added to almost all commercial plant milks, since they are the two compounds that can be hard to get on a plant-based diet.
We can't discuss non-dairy milks and NOT broach the controversy over soy. Maybe you've heard that soy milk should be avoided due to the estrogen it contains? You're not alone, if so. It's a common misconception and we're happy to put it to bed, forever.
Simply put, soy is rich in phytoestrogens, which, unless you’re a plant, have no effect on the human body. In fact, studies have shown that a moderate soy consumption (one to two servings per day) has been associated with a lower risk of breast cancer. And no, it doesn't cause men to grow breasts, either.
Like most things, not all soy foods are created equally! When it comes to your whole food plant-based diet, it's best to consume organic non-GMO soy (any soy that says “organic” is also non-GMO, by the way). And choose soy foods in their whole form or minimally processed. New to the vegan world? Be on the lookout for processed soy protein isolate, which is in many common processed foods, from veggie burgers to protein bars, and should be avoided on a whole food plant based diet.
- Going dairy-free means clearer skin, a healthier heart, decreased risk of developing many serious illnesses, including heart disease, hypertension, Alzheimer's, and even cancer.
- Non-dairy milk can be a great healthy alternative to cow's milk!
- When it comes to picking the "best" non-dairy milk, every option has its own benefits and downsides, but if I had to pick a winner, based on the nutritional profile and versatility it offers to a whole food plant-based diet, it would have to be soy milk.
- Soy will not affect your hormones negatively or increase your breast cancer risk – consuming organic and whole non-GMO soy may actually decrease the likelihood that you develop breast cancer.
- Keep in mind that the best non-dairy milk for you all depends on your nutritional needs, protein, sugar, fat, and total calories.
Rafaela Michailidou is a Vegan Lifestyle Coach, and a freelance health and wellness content writer, with a Plant-Based Nutrition Certificate from the T. Colin Campbell Center for Nutrition Studies.