Nutrition Articles

Are You Drinking the Wrong Kind of Milk?

We Spill the Skinny on How to Pick the Best Dairy Drink

Skim and almond and soy, oh my! The days of the milkman dropping off either whole or skim milk are long gone. These days, there's a dairy (or non-dairy) variety to meet every taste, dietary requirement and lifestyle—and they don't always come from a cow.
Whether you're on a weight loss plan, have a lactose sensitivity or follow a vegan diet, milk can do your body good—as long as you drink the right kind.
Best Milk for Toddlers
If you're weaning your baby off breast milk or formula, you may be wondering what type of cow's milk to offer. Acclaimed pediatrician Dr. William Sears recommends avoiding cow's milk until age one. At that time, it's best to switch to whole milk, as little ones need the fat and cholesterol for healthy brain development. At two years and older, you can transition your toddler to low-fat milk (one or two percent).
"As babies grow into toddler years, most do not need the extra fat of whole milk and do just fine with two percent milk," Dr. Sears told Parenting magazine. "The question of when to switch from whole to low-fat milk depends upon your toddler's overall nutrition. In my pediatric practice, I usually wait until two years of age to switch a toddler from whole milk to two percent milk. Most toddlers are picky eaters and need the extra fat for extra calories." This means it's best to skip the skim when filling your little one's sippy cup. And after switching from whole to low-fat milk, make sure your toddler's diet has enough healthy fats for optimal growth and development.
Best Milk for Older Children & Teens
After two years of age, low-fat milk (one or two percent) should be suitable for all kids older than two, says Dr. Shari Nethersole. "For older children and adults, whole milk can be a source of unwanted calories and fat, particularly in this era when so many of us are overweight," she says. One percent milk also has lower cholesterol, making it a more heart-friendly choice.
Dr. Nethersole also points out that whole, two percent and one percent milk all provide high amounts of vitamin A, vitamin D and calcium, which are essential to healthy growth and development for older kids and teens.
Best Milk for Nursing Mothers
For moms breastfeeding their babies, nutrition becomes an even greater concern than normal. After all, everything you're eating and drinking ultimately becomes part of your baby's diet, and you want to ensure that you're passing along the right amount of vitamins and nutrients.
According to lactation consultant Kathleen Huggins, the type of milk you drink isn't as important as the quality of your diet. You don't have to drink milk in order to produce milk. As long as you're staying hydrated and eating healthy, clean foods, your baby will receive plenty of sustenance from you. That said, low-fat milk is a good choice for boosting mom's calcium and vitamin intake.
There has been some debate as to whether a mother drinking cow's milk can cause a breastfeeding baby to develop allergies and/or behavioral changes, but more research is needed before a conclusion can be made.  

Best Milk for Athletes
If you're training for a race or logging strenuous workouts, you may want to consider swapping out your sports beverage for flavored milk. Studies have shown that athletes who drank fat-free chocolate milk after running experienced better muscle recovery—and higher levels of performance-boosting glycogen—than those who drank sports drinks. The sweeteners in the chocolate, strawberry or other flavoring deliver a boost of carbohydrates and calories, while the milk's protein aids in muscle repair.
The one caveat: Flavored milks will have more sugar than the regular variety, and may contain artificial coloring and/or flavoring that could impact those with sensitivities.
Best Milk for the Lactose-Intolerant
Lactose is the primary sugar in milk and dairy products. Most people produce an enzyme called lactase, which breaks down the lactose for digestion. If you are lactose-intolerant, your intestines don't produce lactase, and the lactose isn't properly digested. This can cause symptoms that include cramping, bloating, nausea, gas and diarrhea.
The good news: Those who can't digest lactose can still enjoy the taste and nutrients of milk. For dairy drinkers, there is a lactose-free milk that contains the lactase enzyme your body is lacking. Another option is to try a nutrient-fortified non-dairy milk, such as soy, almond, coconut, hemp or rice milk.
Best Milk for Seniors
People age 50 and over need higher levels of calcium and vitamin D to help counteract the increased risk of osteoporosis. The National Institutes of Health recommends that seniors consume 1,200 milligrams of calcium each day, which can be met with three to four glasses of milk (or a mixture of other dairy products like yogurt, greens and cheese). Seniors who want to minimize fat and calorie intake should stick to low-fat or fat-free milk.

Best Milk for Dieters
For those seeking a lighter dairy drink, skim milk offers a reduced fat content and calorie count without sacrificing essential nutrients—it's still rich in calcium, protein, vitamin A, vitamin D and more. One glass of skim contains around 83 calories and 0.2 grams of fat.
For those who find skim too diluted but don't want the fat and calories of whole milk, low-fat milk is a good compromise. The 1 percent low-fat version clocks in at 103 calories and 2.4 grams of fat, while 2 percent milk has 124 calories and 4.9 grams of fat per 1-cup serving.
Although skim and low-fat milks are popular among calorie counters, some researchers are beginning to recommend whole milk as a healthier alternative.

Best Milk for Vegans
Vegans don't consume any animal products, which includes dairy, but that doesn't mean they have to swear off milk. There are several popular non-dairy milk alternatives that combine great taste and essential vitamins and nutrients (in fortified varieties).
  • Soy Milk: Made from whole soybeans and filtered water, soy milk is the most popular dairy alternative for vegans. At 131 calories and 4.3 grams of fat per glass, this low-sugar milk can promote weight loss while providing a generous dose of antioxidants, vitamin D, protein and calcium. It's also devoid of cholesterol, which is good for heart health.
  • Almond Milk: This nut-based milk—made from ground almonds and filtered water—provides a taste similar to the real thing, without the high calorie and fat content. A glass of almond milk has between 30 to 60 calories and just 3 grams of fat, and delivers a healthy boost of vitamin E, vitamin D and healthy fats—although it's very low in protein. Unfortified varieties don’t provide the same level of calcium as cow’s milk, therefore almond milk drinkers may consider taking a calcium supplement.
  • Rice Milk: Of all the dairy-free alternatives, rice milk has the lowest fat content, with just 2.3 grams per glass and 112 calories. Made from milled rice and water, this neutral-tasting drink provides all B vitamins, antioxidants and plenty of nutrients to promote heart health. Although rice milk is a good choice for those managing their weight, diabetics may want to avoid its high starch content. It's not a natural source of calcium, vitamin D or protein, so look for fortified versions.
  • Coconut Milk: A popular alternative to dairy, coconut milk can be used in recipes, desserts and as a healthy drink. Made from coconut cream, cane sugar and added nutrients, this sweet, creamy beverage is rich in vitamins, but a little light on calcium and protein. At just 34 calories and 3.6 grams of fat per glass, coconut milk fits well into a reduced-calorie diet.
  • Hazelnut Milk: Made from ground hazelnuts, filtered water and sweeteners, this smooth and creamy beverage is a popular choice among those who can't have dairy. At 103 calories and 3.5 grams of fat, it's low in protein but is usually infused with just as much calcium and vitamins as cow's milk.
  • Oat Milk: Oats are linked to many benefits, including reduced risk of heart disease, lower cholesterol and stronger immunity. Made from oat groats, filtered water and other grains, this mild, dairy-free drink provides a healthy alternative to cow's milk. A cup of oat milk contains about 130 calories, 2.5 grams of fat, 2 grams of fiber and 4 grams of protein, and has no saturated fats or cholesterol. Look for brands that are fortified with calcium and vitamin D.
  • Hemp Milk: Made from shelled hemp seeds and filtered water, this nut-based milk is usually fortified with calcium, vitamin D and protein. Each one-cup serving contains between 100 to 140 calories and 5 to 6 grams of fat. 
Always check the nutrition labels on any milk product before you buy, as nutrient levels, calories and fat can vary by brand.
If you're a milk drinker, what's your favorite type? 

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Member Comments

  • Good information!
  • I love milk!!! The many choices have sometimes been struggles, especially when feeding our future generation - and trying to make good choices. For now, I use a varie
  • I use a variety of milk - primarily skim, then almond - unsweetened, and 1 and 2%, not to mention half and half nonfat and buttermilk - lowfat and regular. My husband - a low carber -- --- heavy whipping cream.
  • I'm a little surprised that soy, almond, and the like are relegated to the "vegan" section. I am not vegan nor vegetarian nor lactose-intoleran
    t, and I don't drink any cow's milk at all.

    When talking about milk for the different groups, where is the recommendation of what "vegan" milk is good for toddlers, dieters, athletes, etc.?

    I cannot help but feel that this article was paid for by the dairy industry...
  • I drink almond milk but cook with 1%.
  • Milk is a product produced by mammary glands not some suspension of vegetable products in water which goes under the oxymoron "non dairy milk". Adults do not "need" milk in their diet there are alternative foods which supply the same nutrients.. Fermented dairy products such as plain yogurt and kefir are viable alternatives to fluid milk which according to some current research is best consumed as whole milk not one of the reduced fat versions.
  • I love Coconut milk (Silk), it is so good, I use the unsweetened.
  • When I learned how cow milk was produced, i went to Soy Milk. My favorite is Silk Almond and Silk Almond chocolate milk. I never drink regular milk. It took me a bit of time to get used to the Silk Almond milk, so i began drinking the chocolate almond with extra protein. It is just like having a milkshake! I use it in all my cooking and all my smoothies!!
  • Because I am lactate sensitive, I used half and half as my Allergist suggested. But when I started using Almond milk, I continue its use. I don't like it with vanilla flavoring. Just plain.
  • I drink rice milk, almond milk, and cashew milk. Dairy milk taste bad to me and hurts my stomach. For some reason I enjoy and can eat dairy yogurt.
  • why milk at all? in every other species, when an infant is weaned from its mother, it never drinks milk anymore. Why do humans consume milk of other species, after weaning from human milk? The protein in cow's milk isn't healthy and prevents the calcium that is in milk from being optimally absorbed. Kale is a better source per calorie, for calcium AND protein, and it isn't the only plant food for which this is true. There are many plant sources richer in calcium than cows milk.

  • From this blog: "Studies have shown that athletes who drank fat-free chocolate milk after running experienced better muscle recovery—and higher levels of performance-boost
    ing glycogen—than those who drank sports drinks"

    Thank you for linking to the report so that we can see that it actually was ONE study (not multiple), was so small as to not be usable (only 8 participants), was sponsored by the dairy industry, and was never peer reviewed or published in a peer-reviewed journal. Besides that, it was a comparison between carb-only sports drinks and flavoured milk with its natural proteins --- they never bothered doing the comparison with plain milk, or with another sports "fuel" containing carbs / electrolytes / protein. While it was enough for the dairy industry to use it for advertising, I wouldn't consider it a firm basis as a recommendation to anybody. Other articles here on Spark give much better recommendations for "recovery" foods, so the suggestion here is not only on an incredibly flimsy footing, but it is in direct contradiction to information available in other articles.

    Thank you also for the link to the Washington Post article regarding fat in dairy. While an actual study is definitely a better reference, it was interesting reading.
    I disagree with this article and drinking low fat milk and milk products. There is no evidence that fat from milk equals fat on the body. In fact it is my understanding that when you take the fat out of the milk our bodies uses the milk as a carbohydrate instead of a protein .

    Also store bought cows milk has had the nutrients stripped out of it and the Vitamin D and calcium added back into it are man made, not natural.

    I like both Almond and Coconut milk but the commercial brands put a lot of additives into them. Carrageenan which causes me to gain 2 to 3 pounds overnight is in a lot of them. It also affects my fasting blood sugar for 3 days after eating or drinking something with it in it.

    I drink whole, raw milk from grass fed cows, as well as Cream, butter and yogurt from the same cows. I also make my own almond and coconut milk, all natural. Yum.
  • I'm surprised that an expert on a health/weight loss site would recommend chocolate or other flavored milk to athletes (or anyone). They are vehicles for added sugars (you know - the kind responsible for metabolic disease), which do no good for anyone, athlete or otherwise.

    In fact, there is no evidence to support that dairy is necessary for good health. If anything, our obsession with getting three servings a day, as advised by the dairy industry, has resulted in not only extra pounds, but also environmental degradation as a result of the millions of dairy cattle in the US.

About The Author

Melissa Rudy Melissa Rudy
A lifelong Cincinnatian, Melissa earned a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature from University of Cincinnati before breaking into online writing in 2000. As a Digital Journalist for SparkPeople, she enjoys helping others meet their wellness goals by writing about all aspects of healthy living. An avid runner and group fitness addict, Melissa lives in Loveland with her guitarist husband and three feisty daughters.