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Does Milk Really Do a Body Good?

How plant-based milks provide a cleaner alternative to bone health

I remember eating lunch in my elementary school cafeteria. With every meal, I proudly drank my entire 8-ounce serving of milk to ensure that I would have strong bones and teeth. When I became a father, I lovingly recited “milk does a body good” to my children, never once examining the evidence that supported this narrative. As my kids grew up, famous athletes and celebrities with milk mustaches appeared on billboards all over town.

Let’s take a moment to reflect on both the logic and the research supporting the necessity for a lifelong consumption of milk for bone health. As infants, most of us consume our mother’s milk, because this is what mammals do. Every mammalian mother produces the perfect milk for her own babies. But how many of us continued nursing from our mothers when we became adults? What a ridiculous question!!! But is it logical to quit nursing from our human mothers and begin consuming the milk of another species? Is graduating to cow’s milk a natural progression?

Humans are the only species that consume milk from another species, and humans are the only species to consume milk after infancy.

 

So why do we do it?

The answer to this question is complex and nuanced. It would take a thorough examination of human culture, politics, medical research, agri-business, and both human and animal ethics. Suffice it to say that objective medical research does not support the need for milk and other dairy products to prevent osteoporosis, a condition in which our bones become fragile due to a loss of density. In fact, many health researchers and professionals, including the Harvard School of Public Health, proclaim that consuming dairy products may actually increase your chances of getting osteoporosis. [1]

A whopping 65% of the world population is considered lactose intolerant, with the percentages being higher in people of color. [2] [3] When we are infants, our bodies produce an enzyme called lactase that digests the milk sugar lactose. Our bodies tend to quit producing that enzyme at around 3 years of age. This is a natural time to be completely weaned from our mothers. But instead of abstaining from milk altogether, we move from our mothers to the cow, without the benefit of the enzyme lactase. Therefore, we naturally have trouble digesting cow milk. Using faulty logic, we view this condition as a medical issue and seek ways to cure it.

Furthermore, dairy products promote a host of other health issues, including cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, certain cancers (especially prostate, breast, and ovarian), hormonal issues, asthma, and inflammation. [4]

 

Are there healthy ways to get daily calcium without consuming dairy products?

In the same way that baby cows do not get osteoporosis when they quit drinking their mother’s milk, we do not have to consume milk as adults to prevent osteoporosis. Just like the cow, we can get plenty of calcium from the plants that we eat. Some of our best sources of calcium include beans and legumes, collard greens, broccoli, sweet potatoes, edamame, tofu, and fortified cereals.

But because milk has become a staple in the American diet, it is hard to get away from this product altogether. Fortunately, there are as many as 17 plant-based alternatives to cow milk on the market. Nearly every one of these plant milks is fortified with calcium. Furthermore, most of them are fortified with vitamin D (essential for calcium absorption) and vitamin B-12 (the main nutrient that needs to be supplemented in a plant-based diet).

Let’s explore five plant-based milks, comparing both the nutritional content and the palate sensation. The nutritional information below is based on one 8-ounce, unsweetened serving of each type of plant milk.

Note: One 8 oz. serving of cow milk has 305 mg of calcium

 

SOY MILK

soy milk whole harvest blog

Calories: 80

Saturated Fat: 0.5 grams

Protein: 7 grams

Calcium: 300 milligrams

Soy is my plant milk of choice. I find it to be one of the thickest and most flavorful of the plant milks. Soy (and the whole-plant edamame) provides one of the most complete plant-based amino acid profiles. Furthermore, soy milk is rich with isoflavones, which have many potential health benefits, including reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis, hormone-dependent cancer, and the loss of cognitive function. [5] Recognizing the health dangers of dairy, the USDA 2020-2025 dietary guidelines include soy-based dairy alternatives as a replacement for traditional milk, yogurt, and cheese. [6]

Will soy estrogen feminize men’s bodies?

Soy is rich in phytoestrogens. (The Greek word “phyto” means “plant”.) By contrast, cow’s milk contains mammalian estrogen. Our bodies do not assimilate phytoestrogens in the same way as they assimilate mammalian estrogens. There is no scientific evidence connecting the consumption of soy to increased estrogen levels in men, decreased levels of testosterone, or any physical symptoms related to these phenomena, including physical appearance and fertility. [7] [8]

 

OAT MILK

oat milk whole harvest blog

Calories: 92

Saturated Fat: 0.4 grams

Protein: 2 grams

Calcium: 240 milligrams

Oat milk is another thick plant milk, but it is also creamier than the soy counterpart. People love oat milk for coffee and for drinking straight from the glass. Except for protein and the abundance of isoflavones, oat milk is comparable to soy milk in terms of nutritional content.

 

COCONUT MILK

coconut milk whole harvest blog

Calories: 70

Saturated Fat: 4 grams

Protein: 0

Calcium: 450 milligrams

Coconut milk is slightly sweet. This is a flavorful option for coffee as well as curry dishes and soups. Be cautious of the high amount of saturated fat in coconut milk. The American Heart Association recommends that we limit our daily intake of saturated fat to 13 grams.[9] One cup of coconut milk provides almost one-third of the maximum recommended daily amount. Heart patients may want to consider other plant milks.

 

ALMOND MILK

almond milk whole harvest blog

Calories: 60

Saturated Fat: 0

Protein: 1 gram

Calcium: 450 milligrams

People love almond milk because it is smooth and has a pleasant taste. Almond milk is found in most coffee houses as a primary non-dairy substitute. I find almond milk to be too watery for my taste, but it is a favorite for many of my friends.

For heart patients who are looking to minimize saturated fat, almond milk is ideal. However, it is not a significant source of protein. Don’t worry about that. It is nearly impossible for someone who is eating a standard 2,000 calorie diet to be deficient in protein.

 

CASHEW MILK

cashew milk whole harvest blog

Calories: 25

Saturated Fat: 0

Protein: >1 gram

Calcium: 450 milligrams

Cashew milk is one of the lowest-calorie options in plant milks, along with having no saturated fat. Therefore, cashew milk is a great option for those who are looking to lose weight and improve cardiovascular health. Cashew milk is not a significant source of protein, but again, protein deficiency is not a common health issue in America.

Cashew milk is perhaps the most neutral plant milk in terms of flavor. Therefore, it goes with about anything.

 

For healthy and delicious alternatives to traditional dairy products, plant milk does a body good!

Recommended resource: https://switch4good.org/

 

Vince Tucker is a Lifestyle Medicine Health and Wellness Coach and an active member of The American College of Lifestyle Medicine. Vince is also a Certified Master Vegan Lifestyle Coach and Educator.

 

Sources: 

[1] https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/calcium/

[2] https://medlineplus.gov/genetics/condition/lactose-intolerance/#statistics

[3] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2608451/

[4] https://switch4good.org/improved-health/

[5] https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/18815737.... 

[6] https://www.dietaryguidelines.gov/sites/default/files/2020-12/Dietary_Guidelines_for_Americans_2020-2025.pdf 

[7] https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19524224/ 

[8] https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/phytoestrogens-and-men

[9] https://www.heart.org/en/healthy-living/healthy-eating/eat-smart/fats/saturated-fats

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