If you browse the milk section in your grocery store, you probably see more options than ever: whole milk, low-fat milk, skim milk, soy milk, oak milk, pea milk, almond milk … the list goes on! But how do you know what’s right for you? Christi Hansen, MS, RDN, LD, a registered dietitian nutritionist at Cancer Wellness at Piedmont, shares what to consider.
First, Hansen stresses that there is no one-size-fits-all answer to choosing milk (and many people don’t drink any milk, which is also fine). She adds that the research is inconclusive as to whether you should opt for dairy or plant-based milk and that there is research indicating the benefits of both.
When making your choice, you may consider the following factors:
Do you have a dairy allergy or lactose intolerance? “If you have even a mild sensitivity to dairy, it’s best to avoid it,” she says. “In some people, an allergy can lead to eczema, diarrhea, constipation and anxiety.”
Are you undergoing cancer treatment? “During cancer treatment, a lot of people experience lactose intolerance and GI discomfort when they have dairy products, while others can only eat yogurt,” she says. “It’s really varied.”
What are your beliefs? Your personal or religious beliefs may influence what type of milk is right for you.
How do you want to use milk? If you want a frothy latte, you may opt for oat milk or whole milk rather than almond milk or skim milk, for example. Or, if you’re making a creamy béchamel sauce, you may want to skip the coconut milk and go for something with a milder flavor.
What are your nutritional needs? If you don’t get calcium or vitamin D from other sources, you may want to choose milk that contains these nutrients, she says. Cow’s milk naturally contains calcium and is fortified with vitamin D, while plant-based milks are often fortified with both nutrients, so there are options for almost everyone. If you need extra protein, some types of milk have more protein than others, such as pea milk, dairy milk and soy milk. Oat milk is creamier, but it also tends to contain more carbohydrates than other types of plant-based milk.
Keep in mind, you don’t have to drink any milk to get the nutrients you need.
“Calcium is found in a lot of foods, such as fortified cereals and tofu, beans, almonds, leafy greens, peas, and whole fish with bones, such as canned salmon,” says Hansen. “You can get vitamin D from 15 minutes of daily sun exposure, fatty fish and eggs with the yolks.”
She adds, “If you’re concerned about specific nutrient levels, you may want to get tested.”
What to look for when buying milk
Here are some ingredients to consider when reviewing nutrition labels:
Added sugar. In general, it’s best to limit or avoid added sugar when possible. Check the nutrition label, since flavored dairy milk and many plant-based milks contain added sugar.
Thickeners. “Many plant-based milks contain thickeners, such as guar gum, xanthan gum and carrageenan, which can cause intolerances in some people,” says Hansen.
Fat content. “If you need to gain weight, you may want milk with more fat and protein,” she says.
Truly, it all comes down to personal preference and what’s right for your body. If you have questions about your health or are undergoing cancer treatment, talk with your physician or meet with a dietitian who can help you determine the right foods and beverages for your needs.
Check out more nutrition tips from Cancer Wellness experts.