If your athletes are sipping on chocolate soy milk or splashing almond milk into their cereal before meets, you might be surprised to learn that these popular dairy alternatives are missing some key nutrients that are typically found in the more classic dairy options. While some athletes can’t drink milk for health or ethics reasons - like a lactose intolerance or vegan philosophy - it’s important to understand that milk alternatives aren’t going to provide the same protein, carbohydrate, or micronutrient profile as cow’s milk. And many of the options on the market now are packed with added sugars and preservatives.
While the CDC recommends that children drink two to three cups of cow's milk per day, there are milk alternatives available that can be used to replace the nutrients found in traditional milk.
Here’s what you should pay attention to when assessing which dairy alternative to give your athlete.
It may surprise you to hear that milk is a fantastic source of protein: A single cup of milk, regardless of fat percentage, contains eight grams of protein. Compare that to a standard almond milk, which typically contains around one gram of protein per serving.
If you’re concerned that your athlete needs more protein in their diet, consider a non-dairy milk that’s enriched with pea protein or look for a soy milk, since soy most closely mimics dairy’s nutritional profile with eight grams of protein per cup.
For optimal bone health, calcium is key—and anyone who remembers the Got Milk campaigns of the 1990s knows that milk is one of the best ways to get enough calcium in your diet. Fortunately, many non-dairy milk options recognize the importance of calcium in a healthy daily diet and add it to the non-dairy milk as a supplement. Check the nutrition facts to find a non-dairy milk that offers 25 percent of the daily value per cup of milk.
Vitamin B12 is a vital nutrient responsible for red blood cell development as well as brain and nerve health. For vegan athletes, it may be hard to get enough of this vitamin, since it’s primarily found in dairy and animal products, with milk being one of the top sources. However, many non-dairy milks are now fortified with B12, so again, it’s about reading the nutritional facts on the back of the almond, rice, soy, or coconut milk that you’re purchasing to ensure that it’s been added.
Like calcium, vitamin D is essential to bone growth, which is incredibly important for your developing athlete. And no, playing outside in the sun can’t guarantee that your child is getting their daily dose of this vitamin, though sunlight does provide a small amount. Always look for a milk alternative that is fortified with vitamin D, or ensure that your athlete is getting their daily dose from another source.
In the case of a young athlete, you’re likely trying to add calories rather than cut them, and with rice, almond, and flax milks, you may be reducing calories without realizing it. Unsweetened versions of these three types of milk contain under 40 calories per cup and a negligible amount of protein and fat, so if your athlete is eating their cereal with unsweetened almond milk, they may end up with a meal that’s entirely made up of carbohydrates and is significantly less filling than required.
If you’re worried that your athlete is missing out on critical calories, consider switching to soy or pea milk, or adding a non-dairy protein to the meal in addition to the almond milk.
While dairy contains natural sugar (lactose), most non-dairy alternatives add sugars in the form of evaporated cane juice or something similar. Your athlete may not need to worry about caloric intake, but it’s still important to be aware of how much additional processed sugar is in their diet, especially if they love the specialty non-dairy milks like chocolate or vanilla flavors. Often, these are loaded with extra sugars, but even the ‘original’ styles of many soy, coconut, or almond milks have added sugar to improve taste. Check the label for any cane juice, corn syrup, dextrose, fructose, or other -ose additions.
Preservatives and Binding Agents
Some non-dairy milks are simple (these are often the ones found in the refrigerated section of the supermarket) and contain only a few basic ingredients. Others, especially those designed to be shelf-stable, are often packed with preservatives and binding agents like guar gum, which can cause gas or diarrhea when consumed in larger quantities. Check the full ingredient label and try to avoid brands that contain ingredients you can’t pronounce or don’t recognize.
While traditional cow’s milk offers many nutritional benefits, a little research will help ensure that your athlete can get key nutrients from dairy alternatives too.
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