Milk: What kind is right for you?

When you walk down the dairy aisle, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the different types of milk. There are dairy and non-diary choices, cow’s milk, plant-based alternatives and more. But what’s the right kind of milk for you? People may choose a cow’s milk alternative for several reasons – lactose intolerance and dairy allergies, taste preferences or diets preferences, to name a few. And as an athlete, you’ll want to choose the milk that best nourishes your body.

We hope this sports nutrition guide will help clear up the confusion at the grocery store.

Dairy Milk/Cow’s Milk

1 cup: 80 calories and 8 grams of protein

Vitamins/minerals: Calcium, vitamin D, vitamin B12, vitamin A, potassium, riboflavin and phosphorus

Pros: Variety of types (skim, 1%, 2% and whole milk) for taste preferences, calorie needs and body composition goals.

Lactose-Free Dairy/Cow’s Milk

1 cup: 80 calories and 8 grams of protein

Vitamins/minerals: Calcium, vitamin D, vitamin B12, vitamin A, potassium, riboflavin and phosphorus

Pros: A good choice for people who want the same nutrients as what’s in cow’s milk but are unable to digest lactose.

Almond Milk

1 cup: 30-60 calories and 1-2 grams of protein (brands may differ)

Vitamins/minerals: Calcium, vitamin D, vitamin E and vitamin A

Pros: Good for people who can’t drink regular milk or who are looking for a lower calorie option

Cons: Some brands have added sugar for flavor, so check the label for “unsweetened” versions. Almond milk is also not a good source of protein for athletes to have with a meal or as a post-workout recovery beverage. When using almond milk in a smoothie, add a protein source like Greek yogurt or protein powder or have eggs on the side.

Soymilk

1 cup: 80 calories and 7 grams of protein

Vitamins/minerals: Calcium, vitamin D, vitamin B12, vitamin A, potassium, magnesium, riboflavin, folate and phosphorous

Pros: This plant-based alternative has a closer nutritional profile to cow’s milk than other milk alternatives. If you like chocolate milk after a workout, try chocolate soymilk if you’re looking for a quick post-workout recovery option.

Oat Milk

1 cup: 90 calories and 3 grams of protein (brands may differ)

Vitamins/minerals: Calcium, vitamin D, fiber, vitamin A, riboflavin, phosphorus and vitamin B12 (brands may differ)

Pros: A good option for individuals with allergies to nuts, soy or cow’s milk.

Rice Milk

1 cup: 120 calories and 1 gram of protein

Pros: An option for individuals with allergies to nuts, soy or cow’s milk.

Cons: Rice milk is not a good source of protein for breakfast or post-workout. Take a supplement if you drink rice milk and don’t consume calcium- or vitamin D-rich foods.

Coconut Milk

1 cup: 45 calories and 0 g protein

Vitamins/minerals: Some brands supplement coconut milk with vitamin B12, vitamin A, selenium and magnesium

Cons: Contains the least amount of protein of all milk types and contains low amounts of calcium and vitamin D. It also has more fat than carbohydrates or protein.

Other helpful tips:

  • If you’re an athlete looking to add protein to your diet, oat, almond, rice and coconut milk are not good options.
  • Be aware of added vitamins and minerals and choose options that are fortified with calcium and vitamin D if you lack those nutrients in your diet.
  • A good goal for a post-workout snack is a 2:1 to 3:1 ratio of carbohydrates to protein.
  • Pay attention to added sugar in milk. If a drink has added sugars but very little protein, it might not be the best choice for a beverage, especially as a post-workout recovery drink.

Alli DeLay, SDSU dietetic intern and Lizzie Kasparek, MS, sports dietitian