With many different types of milk readily available in the supermarket, the overwhelming choice can be confusing.
To help athletes make informed decisions about what milk is best for them, we have done a review of common milk varieties below.
Nutrient profile comparison (per 250ml)
Note: Common products sold in Australian supermarkets have been used for reference, nutrient composition may vary across brands
Before deciding which milk to drink, have a think about the purpose of the meal or snack that you are having it with. This purpose will allow you to make an informed decision regarding which option is best. Context is crucial in sports nutrition, as different food/drinks can have both a negative and positive impact on performance based on the situation in which they are consumed.
The more appropriate milk/s for different purposes are outlined below.
Meals or snacks consumed before training should be built based on the purpose of fuelling the upcoming session. The key nutrient involved in fuelling training and competition is carbohydrates, making carb-rich food and drinks the optimal choice pre-training.
Furthermore, while dietary fat is an important component of a healthy diet, consuming a relatively low amount of dietary fat close to training is recommended as consuming too much can increase risk of gastrointestinal symptoms when combined with exercise.
Therefore, if having milk as a fuel source before training, the ideal choices are those that are high in carbohydrate and relatively low in fat, making skim, light and rice milk the more suitable options.
There are three key nutrition-related goals of recovery after training – refuelling with carbohydrates to replace the fuel used, repairing muscles with protein, and rehydrating with fluid to replace that lost, with the addition of electrolytes helping to retain the fluid consumed.
Cow’s milk is an excellent recovery option as it contains a relatively high amount of protein, carbohydrates and also includes sodium to help retain the fluid for rehydration. Additionally, high protein cow’s milk can be an excellent option for athletes with greater protein requirements.
If unable to consume cow’s milk due to lactose intolerance, lactose-free milk is a good alternative as it is merely cow’s milk with the lactose removed.
If unable to consume cow’s milk due to preference (e.g. vegan), the next best option for recovery would be soy milk, as it contains almost the same amount of protein as cow’s milk as well as carbohydrates.
The other plant-based milks could still be used as a recovery option but would need to be combined with another protein source to support muscle recovery e.g. Musashi protein powder or Greek yoghurt.
Health & wellbeing
While fuelling and recovery are crucial for athletic performance, an athlete won’t be able to perform if they don’t have good health. Ensuring adequate intake of vitamins and minerals will support good health.
Calcium is an essential nutrient that plays a key role in developing and maintaining strong bones, with inadequate intake related to increased fracture risk and ultimately osteoporosis, neither of which support a healthy athlete.
Historically, cow’s milk and other dairy products have been the key dietary sources of calcium for individuals to grow strong bones. As non-dairy milks grow in popularity and replace intake of cow’s milk, choosing a calcium-fortified option is important to ensure calcium is not under-consumed. Of the plant-based milk products reviewed, all were calcium-fortified except the coconut milk. It is important to note that this may vary across brands, so look at the ingredients list on the back of the product to see if includes calcium.
There could actually be a place for a range of milks in your diet, you just need to apply it to your specific goals and requirements.