Which types of milk are best for runners?

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Back in the day when you drank a glass of milk, you knew it came from a cow. Today? The dairy and beverage aisles are home to much more than plain old cow’s milk.

You’ve got milk from sheep and goats, and “milk” beverages made from almonds, coconuts, soy, and even rice mixed with water. Here’s the rundown on how all these milk beverages stack up nutritionally and what’s best for runners.

COW

This is considered the gold standard for a newborn calf and the milk of choice for humans - we’ve been drinking it for more than 10,000 years. Each 200ml glass is full of nutrients, including 7.2g of protein, (X percent of your RDA), 248mg of calcium (31 percent of your RDA), and B vitamins like heart-healthy B12.

Studies have shown that cow-milk drinkers may have better bone mineral density and a lower risk for osteoporosis, thanks to the well-absorbed calcium and other nutrients. They also tend to have a healthier body weight and lower body fat. 

Milk is a runner-friendly food given its great nutritional profile. But for some, the lactose found in animal milks can spell GI trouble. Those who are lactose-intolerant can opt for a lactose-free cow milk and still reap the nutritional benefits. 

The only nutritional difference between whole, skimmed (<2 percent fat) and skimmed milks is their fat content (and calorie count). For example, a 200ml glass of whole milk is 128 calories (7.2g of fat), and skimmed milk is 69 calories with 0.2g fat. Researchers are studying whether the saturated fat found in whole milk is bad for the heart, which has currently been up for debate. 

Organic milk comes from cows raised without the use of growth stimulants and other artificial ways to boost milk production. These cows also eat organic food. Some research shows this type of milk has slightly higher levels of the essential fat alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) that may have potential health benefits, but the jury is still out.

GOAT

With a bit of a strong taste thanks to slightly different types of fat compared to cow’s milk, goat milk has the same protein and calcium content. It also has slightly less lactose than cow milk, but still enough to bother those who are lactose-intolerant. However, the smaller particles of fat in goat’s milk may be a little easier to digest compared to whole cow’s milk. 

“MILK” BEVERAGES

These options are non-dairy but often called “milk” because they look so similar to the real thing. But when it comes to nutrition these beverages are quite different. All non-dairy beverages that come from seeds are lactose-free, giving plenty of options to those who are lactose-intolerant or choose to forego animal products.

SOY

Soy milk, made from ground soy beans and water, comes in plain and sweetened, which tend to be a lot higher in added sugars. Each 200ml serving provides about six to eight grams of protein, which supplies all of the essential amino acids. Soy milk also comes fortified with calcium, and vitamins D and B12 (which does not occur naturally in soy). This makes soy milk a good lactose- and animal-free substitute.  

RICE

Much lower in protein, rice milk provides less than 0.5g per cup, but it may come fortified with calcium, and vitamins D and B12. Be sure to read the label because nutrients vary depending on brands, and while some contain lots of the good stuff, others may have nothing at all. Rice milk also comes in a sweetened version, which of course adds calories from sugar.

ALMOND

A combination of water and ground almonds, this non-dairy drink is also low in protein with around one gram per 200ml serving. Check the label for added sugar, calcium and vitamin D, since it can be hit or miss on which brands carry these nutrients. 

HEMP

Hemp seeds are rich in omega-3 and omega-6 essential fats, and also provide some vitamin E. Fortified with vitamin D and calcium, hemp milk also has about one gram of protein per 200ml.

COCONUT

This non-dairy milk varies quite a bit - the canned milk (what you might use in a Thai curry) can be loaded with fat. The lower-fat, milk alternative versions have about 2 grams per 200ml and are packaged in shelf-stable boxes. They also tend to be fortified with calcium and vitamins D and B12. When it comes to other nutrients, however, coconut milk has next to no protein - or much else.

- Additional reporting by Debbie Fetter