Growing up, dairy milk was probably a fridge staple you reached for at every meal. Today, plant-based alternatives provide new options when shopping for milk. However, not only does the taste not stack up to the classic dairy milk you know and love, the nutritional profile falls short as well.
"Dairy has been getting a bad wrap with the increasing popularity of plant-based alternatives, but dairy, more specifically milk, is a highly overlooked superfood that is not easily substituted," says Registered Dietitian Nutritionist Tara Dellolacono-Thies, owner of Summit Nutrition Strategy. "This distinction, superfood, is often reserved exclusively for brightly colored fruits and vegetables. Fruits and vegetables are certainly deserving, but after my in-depth analysis of the nutrients in milk, I believe dairy to be extremely underrated."
Milk alternatives will always have an important role for people who are allergic or choose not to eat animal products. While replacing the nutrients found in milk is not impossible, it does require deeply rethinking how you eat.
Consider just one cup of milk: With a simple and short ingredient list, milk provides high-quality protein identified to support healthy muscles and maintain lean body mass. Milk also provides several important vitamins and minerals that are not present in non-dairy alternatives, like calcium, vitamin D, vitamin A, phosphorus, potassium, B12, riboflavin, zinc and magnesium.
Dellolacono-Thies notes that research shows when dairy disappears from the diet, many of its nutrients are not fully recovered in alternatives. According to the Scientific Report of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, “When dairy foods are removed from healthy eating patterns, calcium, magnesium, iron, vitamin A and riboflavin drop below 100% of dietary goals, and vitamin D, potassium and choline drop even lower.”
When breaking down the nutritional profile of non-dairy milks on the market, there is no single food or drink that replaces the gap created when not drinking milk. Here are the many important vitamins and minerals found in dairy milk and their main purpose in supporting health and wellness:
Calcium: Builds and maintains strong bones and teeth.
Vitamin D: Carries messages between the brain and every body part. The immune system needs vitamin D to fight off invading bacteria and viruses. Together with calcium, vitamin D also helps protect from osteoporosis.
Protein: Builds and repairs muscle tissue.
Vitamin B3 (Niacin): Utilized in energy metabolism in the body to improve cholesterol levels and lower cardiovascular risks.
Vitamin A: Keeps skin and eyes healthy and promotes growth.
Vitamin B12 (Cobalamin): Supports normal blood functions and keeps the nervous system healthy.
Vitamin B2 (Riboflavin): Helps your body use carbohydrates, fats and protein for fuel.
Phosphorus: Builds and maintains strong bones and teeth, plus supports tissue growth.
Choline: Supports brain and nervous system functions, and helps the body transport fat for metabolism and early brain development.
Potassium: Supports proper kidney and heart function, muscle contraction and nerve transmission.
Magnesium: Regulates muscle and nerve function, blood sugar levels, blood pressure, and making protein, bone and DNA.
"The components of milk also work synergistically together to support health," says Dellolacono-Thies. "For example, calcium absorption is enhanced by the presence of lactose. On average, dairy calcium is 25% more absorbable than fortified calcium in soy milk. The synergistic effects of milk nutrients can also be seen when looking at the impact of milk on fat absorption. Calcium, phosphorus and the milk fat globule membrane interfere with fat absorption which lowers the number of calories from fat that enter the body."
While eating and drinking dairy is a personal choice, there are many misperceptions that cause confusion. For those with a dairy intolerance, complete avoidance is often not necessary, Dellolacono-Thies says. Lactose-free milk contains all the benefits of milk without the lactose. Sometimes just reducing the amount of dairy without completely cutting it out will relieve symptoms of lactose intolerance. Some people avoid dairy because of the belief that it causes systemic inflammation. The recent 2017 review of 52 clinical studies concluded that dairy actually lowered inflammatory markers.
Is it time you give milk another try? Whether on cereal, in recipes or as a refreshing cold beverage, it's a wholesome way to support your health.
"There is certainly no denying that milk is a nutrient-dense powerhouse. It supplies essential nutrients in a single convenient source that is hard to match without supplements or a serious revamp of the diet. The productiveness of this superfood is irreplaceable," says Dellolacono-Thies.