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Ready to Swap Your Cow’s Milk for Plant Milk?

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For those who don’t or can’t enjoy dairy, the number of non-dairy milk options available these days is an absolute delight. Whether your reason is related to an allergy, taste, special diet or animal welfare, there are plenty of choices to try in your cereal, coffee or for cooking.

Almond milk is one of the most readily available plant milks at the grocery store. Plain and unsweetened varieties are low in calories, fat and carbs, and contain healthy fats and vitamin E. Coffee connoisseurs may prefer the neutral flavor and creaminess of oat milk, while others enjoy the taste of soy milk, cashew milk, macadamia milk, hemp milk, rice milk or any number of other options. It can be hard to wade through the pros and cons of each to find the best choice.

“There are some nutritional differences between dairy milk and plant milk, so to answer the question ‘which one is best?’ a lot of it depends on your health and dietary needs, and personal taste preference,” said Nephrologist Camilia Makhyoun, DO, from Samaritan Kidney Specialists - Corvallis.

Comparing Plant Milks

  Calories Fat  Carbs Protein Calcium
Horizon Organic Whole Milk  160 Total: 8g
Saturated 5g
Monounsaturated 2.5g
13g 8g 310mg
Horizon Organic 1% Milk 130 Total: 3g
Saturated 1.5g
Monounsaturated 1g
16g 10g 370mg
Oatly Lowfat Oat Milk 90 Total: 1g
16g 3g 350mg
Rice Dream - Rice Milk 70 Total: 2.5g
Polyunsaturated 0.5g
Monounsaturated 1.5g
13g 0g 240mg
Silk Soy Milk 80 Total: 4g
Saturated 0.5g
Polyunsaturated: 2.5g
Monounsaturated g
3g 7g 460mg
Silk Almond Milk 30 Total: 2.5g
Polyunsaturated 0.5g
Monounsaturated 1.5g
1g 1g 450mg
Silk Cashew Milk 25 Total: 2g
Monounsaturated 1g
1g <1g 450mg

Dr. Makhyoun noted things to consider before switching to a plant milk.

Additives

For dairy milk, the ingredients are milk and often vitamin D. This short ingredient list is a big benefit for people who are trying to keep their foods simple. Plant milks tend to have a longer list of added ingredients, usually for the purpose of making it creamy and to keep it from separating or curdling when you pour it into your coffee.

Making Your Own Plant Milk

There are plenty of recipes online for easy homemade plant milk. Making it yourself ensures the product is fresh and contains only the ingredients you put into it – no added oils or preservatives. However, that also means you’re missing out on the nutrients added to commercial versions, particularly calcium and vitamin D.

“Homemade plant milks are a great option if you want to explore them,” said Dr. Makhyoun. “For growing children, women and seniors with high calcium needs, be sure and examine the overall diet closely and make sure there is enough of these nutrients from other sources, or consider adding in a supplement.”

Calcium & Vitamin D

Calcium and vitamin D are essential for bone health and are especially important for women over age 50 and seniors over age 70. Getting enough of these nutrients helps to keep bones strong and prevent osteoporosis, according to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons.

A serving of dairy or plant milk supplies about 30% of an adult’s daily calcium needs. Some, but not all, brands of milk are fortified with vitamin D, which helps your body absorb the calcium and contributes to your vitamin D needs. Commercial plant milks are usually fortified with calcium and vitamin D to make it nutritionally like dairy milk.

“There is some question around how well the body can absorb fortified calcium, so if you drink plant milk make sure you’re eating a variety of other calcium-rich foods,” said Dr. Makhyoun.

Other sources of naturally occurring calcium include cheese, yogurt, legumes, canned sardines or salmon with bones, and dark leafy greens like kale and broccoli.

What About Kids?

“Dairy milk can be a good way to fill in nutritional gaps for kids,” said Dr. Makhyoun. “Some vitamins and minerals like iron, calcium, zinc, and vitamins A and D that are found in dairy milk can be hard for children to get enough of – especially for young children who are learning to eat solid foods.”

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends plain whole milk for children between the ages of 1 and 2. If you prefer a plant milk, Dr. Makhyoun recommended plain unsweetened soy milk that has been fortified with calcium and vitamin D. However, he/she notes even fortified soy milk does not contain as many vitamins and minerals as dairy milk does, so you’ll need to be more mindful to ensure they eat a varied diet.

For children ages 2 to 5, Dr. Makhyoun recommended switching from whole milk to low-fat milk or continuing with soy milk. While a growing child’s calcium needs remain high until adulthood, children can get more of their nutrition from food as they learn to like a variety of fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains and lean proteins.

Other Nutritional Needs

Depending on your nutritional needs there can be benefits to choosing plant milk or dairy milk. Your primary care provider or a dietitian can give you more guidelines if you have special health circumstances.

  • If you are concerned about getting enough protein in your diet, dairy milk and soy milk are both good sources.
  • If you are trying to gain weight, choose a milk that is high in fat such as whole milk.
  • If you are trying to keep your carbohydrate low, like for those with diabetes, soy or nut-based milks are good options.
  • If you are trying to minimize saturated fat, choose plant milk over dairy milk.
  • If you have chronic kidney disease, choose soy, almond, cashew or rice milk for less phosphorus and less potassium than cow’s milk.

“Plant milks often have healthy monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats and little to no saturated fat but stick to varieties that are plain and unsweetened for regular use,” said Dr. Makhyoun. “Each type has a little different taste, so have some fun experimenting to find what you like.”

Learn more about calcium requirements for kids and seniors in our health library.