Got Milk Substitutes? Weighing the Health Benefits Against the Real Thing

Rachel Wyman, RD, Clinical Nutrition Educator at Mission Weight Management

Balanced meal planning for weight management requires calorie reduction while still supplying necessary nutrients for optimal wellness.

Obviously, milk varieties contain calories, so you should always take into consideration exactly what nutrients they provide. Is your choice of milk providing you with nutrients your body needs? Or, is it simply adding extra calories?

When the goal is to reduce your calorie intake, the simple advice is to choose skim cow’s milk over whole cow’s milk, or unsweetened plant-based milk substitutes over the sweetened varieties.

But how does your favorite milk variety compare to others, and how can it be effectively incorporated in your weight management meal plan? These details on several milk varieties can help you choose the right one for you:

  • Skim Milk – 80 calories, 0g fat, 0g saturated fat, 12g carbohydrate, 8g protein

Skim milk is a good source of calcium, vitamin D and potassium, and a relatively inexpensive protein source. Choosing skim over whole milk saves calories better spent on plant fats such as avocados, nuts and seeds. One might blend 1 cup of skim milk with ½ cup strawberries, 2 tablespoons of powdered peanut butter and ice for a healthy snack.

  • Unsweetened Soy Milk – 80 calories, 4g fat, 0g saturated fat, 4g carbohydrate, 7g protein

Soy milk is a good source of calcium, vitamin D, riboflavin and vitamin B12. It has comparable protein to cow’s milk. Soy intake is also associated with lower blood pressure, decreased cardiovascular disease risk and decreased bone fractures. There are brands of organic non-GMO soy milk available. For breakfast, combine ¼ cup dry oats, ½ cup soy milk, 2 teaspoons chia seeds and ½ cup blueberries in a Mason jar, close, shake and refrigerate overnight.

  • Unsweetened Almond or Cashew Milk – 30 calories, 2.5g fat, 0g saturated fat, 1g carbohydrate, 1g protein

Almond and cashew milk are good sources of calcium, vitamin D and vitamin E. While not a significant carbohydrate or protein source, you can replace heavy cream with almond or cashew milk in sauces, casseroles and soups to save calories.

  • Unsweetened Coconut Milk – 45 calories, 4g fat, 3.5g saturated fat, <1g carbohydrate, 0g protein

Coconut milk is a good source of calcium, vitamin D and vitamin B12. However, coconut fat is saturated and still advisable to limit according to the American Heart Association. The 2015-2020 USDA Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends limiting saturated fat intake to less than 10 percent of total daily calories. On a 1,500 calorie meal plan, this is a limit of 15 grams of saturated fat per day. If you do choose coconut milk, be sure to select coconut milk beverages in the carton, rather than coconut milk in the can, which is much higher in calories and fat.

  • Unsweetened Hemp Milk – 80 calories, 8g fat, 0.5g saturated fat, 1g carbohydrate, 2g protein

Hemp milk is a good source of calcium, vitamin D, vitamin B12 and omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3 fatty acids are typically under consumed in the standard American diet, especially for those who exclude seafood.

  • Unsweetened Pea Protein Milk – 70 calories, 4.5g fat, 0.5g saturated fat, 0g carbohydrate, 8g protein

Pea protein milk is a good source of calcium, vitamin D, vitamin B12 and vitamin E. It is also rich in potassium and protein, and the brands on the market now contain added omega-3 fatty acids. This milk alternative is also suitable for gluten, soy, nut and lactose intolerance.

The nutrition facts above are based on an 8-ounce serving of each milk variety. Take these facts into consideration as you develop your meal plan, and choose the best milk for the nutrients your need. It’s also worth noting that it’s always best to stay hydrated with zero-calorie fluids, so drink water for thirst instead of milk.

Rachel Wyman, RD, is Clinical Nutrition Educator at Mission Weight Management. To learn more about Mission Weight Management and to sign up for a free information session, call (828) 213-4100 or visit missionweight.org.

By Rachel Wyman
Clinical Nutrition Educator/Mission Weight Management