Got Milk (Confusion)?
Updated: Sep 1, 2021
Did you know that milk is a great option for recovery following a tough training session? Not only is this beverage hydrating, but cow’s milk also naturally contains protein, carbohydrates, and several different vitamins and minerals that are necessary to replenish and restore muscle tissue following exercise.
However, if you’ve recently taken a stroll through the dairy aisle at your local grocery store, you may not be entirely sure which type of milk is the most effective for recovery. In fact, if you’ve left the store feeling a little overwhelmed, allow me to reassure you that you’re not alone. Over the past few years, there has been a significant increase in alternative milk products, as it appears many consumers (for one reason or another) are looking to avoid traditional cow’s milk.
As a result, what was once a very easy choice is now a confusing and (slightly) irritating experience. Seriously there are SO many choices... Traditional cow’s milk, low carb milk, almond milk, soy milk, oat milk, cashew milk, rice milk, coconut milk… What haven’t they milked yet?? Actually don’t answer that question.
The dairy/dairy alternative aisle can be a confusing place for an athlete. And if you don’t have your facts straight, you could end up picking out the wrong product and missing out on a number of essential nutrients. So today, we’re going to set the record straight and give you a helpful breakdown that will allow you to determine exactly what product is the best fit for you post-workout.
Traditional Cows Milk (Skim, 1%, 2%, and Whole Milk):
Nutrient Highlights: 8 oz of liquid contains 8 grams of protein, 12 grams of carbohydrates, and 300 mg Calcium. Fortified cow’s milk also generally contains around 15% of your daily requirement of Vitamin D.
Athlete Considerations; Those who are actively trying to gain weight should consider drinking whole milk as it contains more calories. In turn, those who are looking to decrease their body weight or decrease their caloric intake may want to consider using skim milk. Lastly, milk and chocolate milk are both excellent choices for a recovery beverage since milk naturally contains a desirable ratio or carbs to protein. Therefore, I generally recommend that my athletes choose cow’s milk to fuel up after a long training session.
Unsweetened Soy Milk
Nutrient Highlights: 8oz of unsweetened soy milk generally contains about 7 grams of protein and 3 grams of carbohydrates. Fortified soy milk will also provide about 300 mg of calcium and around 15-25% of your daily requirement of Vitamin D. Note that not all soy milks contain adequate calcium and vitamin D, so you should always check the nutrition label before purchasing.
Athlete Considerations; Soy milk is an excellent choice for athletes who have an allergy or intolerance to milk and/or lactose. Additionally, soy milk is comparable to cow’s milk in it’s protein content, as well as it’s calcium and vitamin D levels (as long as it’s fortified). However, unsweetened soy milk is generally lower in carbohydrates than cow’s milk, so if you want to use this as part of your recovery routine, be sure to pair it with a carb rich snack.
Almond Milk/Cashew Milk
Nutrient Highlights: Of all the beverages on our list, almond and cashew milks are generally the lowest calorie options. This is in part due to the low protein and carb content. In fact, most almond and cashew milks contain only 1 gram of protein and 8 grams of carbs per 8 oz of liquid. Some varieties are fortified with calcium and vitamin D, although levels vary greatly depending on the product.
Athlete Considerations; While almond and cashew milks may taste good and can be included in your diet, I caution athletes about using these products for recovery purposes. Due to the lack of protein, carbohydrates, and calories, it's nutritionally insufficient to be used post workout. But, as I mentioned, if you simply like the taste and want to pair this beverage with a nutrient dense snack for recovery, then you’ll be all set.
Nutrient Highlights: Most brands of oat milk have very similar nutrient profiles to almond and cashew milk. Oat milk usually contains roughly 1 gram of protein and 8 grams of carbs per 8 oz of liquid, and it's also typically fortified with 350 mg of calcium and roughly 20% of your daily dose of vitamin D.
Athlete Considerations; As with some other forms of plant milk, oat milk is an insufficient recovery beverage as it is low calorie, low protein, and low carb. If you enjoy the taste, there's no harm in including it in your day - but avoid using this as part of your recovery routine as it simply lacks the nutrients your body needs after a tough training session.
Nutrient Highlights: Rice milk traditionally is higher calorie than other forms of plant-based milks, and it also provides consumers with roughly 27 grams of carbs per 8 oz. However milk contains negligible quantities of protein, calcium, and vitamin D.
Athlete Considerations; Since rice milk only serves as a source of carbohydrates, it's not a great choice for athletes looking to consume a balanced recovery beverage. However, when paired with a source of protein, rice milk could be utilized as a part of a recovery snack.
In conclusion, if you're an athlete looking for the most effective recovery beverage, then I recommend you grab a glass of low fat cow's milk (regular, or chocolate). If an allergy or intolerance prohibits you from doing that, than a fortified soy milk is your next best option. Lastly, remember that there is no harm in consuming dairy alternatives if you enjoy the taste. Just keep in mind that they don't make great recovery options for athletes as they often lack protein, carbs, calcium, and/or vitamin D.