It seems like everyone has an opinion about milk—some people drink organic milk, hormone-free milk, raw milk, whole milk, skim milk, use it occasionally (but don’t drink it) or avoid dairy at all costs... (I’m sure you can add your own two cents here.) As a registered dietitian and associate nutrition editor at EatingWell Magazine, I can tell you that milk and other dairy products can be part of a healthy diet, but it’s also possible to have a healthy diet that’s dairy-free. Here’s what’s so great about milk—and what to look for if and when you’re skipping dairy.
What Dairy Gives You
Milk delivers some critical nutrients. One cup contains healthy amounts of calcium, vitamins A and D and magnesium (all needed for building strong bones), potassium (needed for nerve function), protein (your body’s “building block”) and some carbohydrate (which your body uses for fuel). Yogurt gives you all those good-for-you nutrients, and sometimes even probiotics, “friendly bacteria” that are good for digestive health. Of course, if you choose 2% (reduced-fat) or whole-milk products (such as cheese), you’ll also be getting a lot of saturated fat and extra calories, so opt for skim or low-fat (1%). But if you’re allergic to dairy, are vegan or just interested in exploring other options, here’s what you should know:
Must-Read: 4 Surprising Health Benefits of Milk
Is Soy a Good Replacement?
The 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that we consume 3 servings of low-fat or nonfat dairy or fortified soy beverages each day. This was a departure for the USDA, which previously had not included soymilk in the guidelines, and shows that a dairy-free diet can meet its recommendations for optimum nutrition. The key word to pay attention to, though, is fortified. It’s easy to find lots of nondairy beverages, but they’re not all equal in terms of delivering the same nutrients as milk.
For a nondairy beverage (such as soymilk, almond milk, rice milk, etc.) to be an adequate replacement for milk, it should be fortified with calcium and vitamins A and D and also have some protein. Look for these nutrients on the nutrition facts label and make sure that they appear in similar amounts to those found in milk (calcium—30% of the recommended daily dose, vitamin A—15%, vitamin D—20%, protein—8 grams). Not every product is going to have exactly these amounts, but you may be surprised to find that some nondairy beverages offer very little of these nutrients. For example, unfortified rice milk has less than a gram of protein, 2% of the daily value for calcium and 0% for vitamins A and D.
Other Nondairy Options
Lastly, if you’re not getting 3 servings of milk or fortified soymilk (or other fortified nondairy beverage), then aim to get more calcium in your diet through plant foods. Calcium-set tofu, kale, broccoli and almonds all offer some calcium. The calcium from these foods is readily absorbed, although calcium from other plant-based sources—such as beans and spinach—is less easily absorbed.
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