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Are Plant-Based Milks good for you or just the latest healthfood scam?

When you go to the grocery store, you’ll notice the refrigerator case and grocery isles filled with plant-based milk alternatives. Plant-based milks are being mass-produced and promoted as a health food and a better alternative to cows milk, but what do we really know about the relative healthfulness of both plant and dairy milk? 

Cow’s milk has been advertised as a bone-building necessary part of every meal since the 1920s, but do we actually need to drink milk? The truth is, that milk is a necessary part of our diet the first 2-3 years of life, but that milk should be human milk. If human milk is not available, then cow’s milk, plant-based milk, or formula* can be a good substitute. After age 3, drinking milk is not necessary IF you eat plenty of other sources of calcium, Vitamin B12, Vitamin D, and protein. (That’s a really big IF) Milk, yogurt, and cheese (and some types of plant-based milk–more on that in a moment) are good sources of those nutrients, however, they are not the only sources of those nutrients.

If you choose to eat dairy foods, consider eating cheese and yogurt and skipping that glass of milk. Cheese and yogurt contain probiotics (beneficial bacteria) that are good for our digestive system. A recent study showed that eating cheese and yogurt is associated with fewer heart attacks but drinking milk is not. Also, eating your calories rather than drinking them is more satisfying and will make you less likely to overeat.

If you choose not to eat dairy foods, make sure you get enough protein, calcium, Vitamin B12, and Vitamin D! You can get these nutrients from plant milk or a variety of other foods.

Natural non-dairy sources of protein:

There are plenty of other healthy sources of plant and animal-based protein to eat. Red and white meat, seafood, eggs, nuts, (and nut butter) seeds (like sesame tahini, quinoa, and sunflower seeds), and legumes (peas, beans, tofu, and peanuts) are good sources of protein. Aim to get a source of protein at every meal. It is extremely rare for Americans to be deficient in protein, but having a good source of protein at each meal helps you feel satisfied. Most of these protein sources contain plenty of vitamins and minerals like milk, but few are good sources of calcium.

Natural non-dairy sources of Vitamin B12:

Only animal products naturally contain Vitamin B12. You can get enough from eggs or meat if you don’t eat dairy. If you are vegan, or a vegetarian who rarely eats eggs, you will need to eat nutritional yeast or take a B12 supplement.  If you decide to become vegan, it’s a good idea to consult a nutritionist at least once.

Natural non-dairy sources of calcium:

Excellent sources of calcium are a little harder to find in the plant world. There are no natural plant-based foods with more than about 10% of your calcium requirement in a normal-sized serving. The following foods have modest amounts of calcium. Choose 3-4 of them to equate to the amount of calcium in a glass of milk or about 10 of them to equal your daily calcium requirement: Cruciferous vegetables (1 cup of collards, kale, bok choy, or broccoli), an orange, a handful of dried figs, ½ cup of white beans, ½ cup soybeans, a tablespoon of chia seeds or sunflower seeds, ¼ cup of almonds, or a cup of okra.

Why is it so hard to get the US Recommended Daily Intake (RDI) of calcium without including dairy products, plant milk, supplements, or other fortified foods? The US RDI for calcium, 1300mg for teens, and 1000mg for adults, is virtually impossible to get from natural, unfortified plant foods. Did human beings somehow evolve to need amounts of calcium unobtainable from a natural diet?

Not exactly. Part of the explanation is that the US RDI is too high. The European RDI for calcium, 800-1000mg/day for teens and 700mg/day for adults, is probably more accurate.  The US RDI is inflated in an attempt to compensate for the typical western diet and lifestyle which includes less than optimal physical activity, (for bone growth) decreased sun exposure, (for vitamin D), and consumption of large amounts of foods that block calcium absorption. Excessive amounts of colas, tea, coffee, salt, alcohol, and wheat bran can cause decreased calcium absorption. If you consume a lot of these foods, you may need extra calcium in your diet.

Calcium is undeniably a vital nutrient for healthy blood pressure, bone health, nerve conduction, muscle contraction, and hormone function, but increasing the intake of calcium alone does not equate to building strong bones and teeth. It’s much more complicated than that. Building bones requires a sufficient intake of Vitamin K2, Vitamin D, Magnesium, and other nutrients too. If you don’t eat several servings of green leafy vegetables (for Vitamin K1 and Magnesium as well as other important nutrients), butter, egg yolks, chicken, or fermented foods (for vitamin K2) and get plenty of Vitamin D from sunshine, fish, meat, eggs, or mushrooms, you’ll need a couple servings of dairy products, plant milk, calcium-fortified foods or supplements to optimally build bone.

The take-home message is that you need to get enough calcium, magnesium, Vitamin D, Vitamin K2, protein, and exercise to build healthy bone. Fortified dairy products or plant foods can supply Calcium, protein, B12, and Vitamin D. You need to supply daily exercise and green veggies.

What you need to know about plant-based milk: Do plant-based milks measure up to dairy milk? 

Some do, most don’t. While most plant-based milks are fortified with vitamin D and calcium (check the label to be certain) only pea and soy-based milk have enough protein. Most plant milks are highly-processed foods that often contain undesirable ingredients like sugar, hexane-extracted plant foods, thickeners, stabilizers, coloring agents, and other additives. 

No plant milks naturally have as much Vitamin B12 or calcium as cow’s milk does. It’s sometimes added as a supplement. Your body doesn’t know the difference between vitamins and minerals in the form of a pill or fortified plant milk so it doesn’t matter if you eat fortified plant milk or take a supplement.

If you choose to drink plant-based milk choose wisely:

The best picks for plant-based milk are Soy and pea milk. They have a similar protein content to cow’s milk and are usually supplemented with B vitamins, calcium and Vitamin D. Be sure to check the label of your brand for these important nutrients and shake the carton well before pouring each glass. If you don’t shake it well each time you pour, you won’t get any of the calcium. (It’s the gritty stuff at the bottom of the carton.)

Read the label to make sure your plant milk is fortified with Calcium, Vitamin D and B12, then shake it before you pour!

Always buy organic soy or pea milk or products that clearly state that the ingredients are non-GMO and not extracted with hexane (a neurotoxic petrochemical used by many non-organic brands) Eden organic soy milk and ripple pea milk are good choices. Of course, unsweetened plant milk is healthier than flavored, but most vanilla soy and pea milks have a similar overall carbohydrate/sugar content to cow’s milk.

I do not recommend drinking nut or grain-based milks. While nuts, especially almonds, contain healthy protein and some calcium, almond milk contains so few almonds that it’s not a good source of protein. Oat and other grain milks are made by converting healthy starches to sugar. They are mostly water and additives. Don’t waste your money on these processed beverages. You’re better off taking a vitamin and mineral supplement and drinking water.

Please DO NOT drink rice milk. Not only is it void of protein, and full of artificial ingredients and empty carbs, it can contain unacceptably high levels of arsenic. It is unsafe for children and undesirable for humans.

Fortified juices are not good choices either. They are basically a calcium pill added to juice. You would be better off eating an orange and taking a supplement. 

Don’t be fooled by DHA added to milk or plant milk. While DHA is important for brain, eye, and heart function, DHA-added milk products cost more than unfortified products and tend to taste a little fishy. It is cheaper to buy a DHA supplement for a few pennies a dose.

The bottom line is that dairy products (especially cheese and unsweetened yogurt), as well as pea or soy milk, and other fortified plant foods like tofu can all be an important part of a healthy diet. Aim to get 2-3 servings per day of the “milk” product of your choice. Try to limit dairy products to one a day and choose plant sources of nutrition as often as possible.

Want to know if you get enough calcium? Try this calcium calculator. Keep in mind that this calculator uses the American RDI which might overestimate your calcium needs.

*Infants under a year of age should drink only human breast milk or FDA-approved infant formula.

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