What is the best alternative milk for athletes?

Sunbears
5 min readFeb 21, 2023

This week we took a journey to our Japanese blog on note.com — Sunbears Official【公式】. Here, our teammate Kumi Kubota talked about an increasingly popular topic — alternatives to cow’s milk that can help athletes reach their training goals! Let’s dive right in!

Milk is a common drink used by athletes for recovery purposes. It contains a good balance of nutrients such as protein, fat, carbohydrates, and calcium. However, milk-derived products are also the most common food intolerance, with about 65% of the world’s adult population dealing with lactose intolerance or milk allergy.

The difference between the two is that lactose intolerance refers to the body’s low levels of lactase enzymes, which help digest lactose — a type of sugar found in dairy products.

Milk allergy is related to the inability to digest the proteins (and sometimes fats) found in dairy products.

Other reasons milk is being avoided are based on ethical and environmental factors as well.

Can you relate? Well, you’re sure not alone!

This is where “milk alternatives” come to rescue! Plant-based milk alternatives are becoming more diverse — soy milk, almond milk, oats milk, rice milk, coconut milk, cashew milk. The global dairy alternatives market is projected to expand from $16 billion in 2019 to $41 billion by 2025.

There is a wide variety of alternative milks, but which is best for athletes seeking physical recovery and performance optimisation? In this article, we will provide a breakdown of the nutritional value of each milk, along its pros and cons.

Soy Milk

Soy milk is made from soybeans or soy protein isolates and is considered a nutritional alternative to cow’s milk. It has about the same amount of protein, but about 3/4 to half the calories, fat, and carbohydrates. Soy is a complete protein source because it contains all the essential amino acids. It is also low in sodium and reduces LDL (bad cholesterol).

However, since soy is considered a phytoestrogen, it has been noted that high consumption may affect hormonal balance. It is also the highest in fat and lowest in calcium of the milk alternatives, so calcium may need to be obtained from another food source. Avoid if you are allergic to soy.

Almond Milk

Almond milk is made from almonds and water. It tastes lighter than regular milk and has a pronounced almond flavor. In addition, it contains magnesium, selenium, and vitamin E, which help promote bone health, provide antioxidant protection, and support the immune system and metabolism. Concentrated almond milk is rich in minerals such as phosphorus, calcium, manganese, magnesium, iron, and copper.

Almond milk is low in sugar, cholesterol-free, and calories, therefore, it is good for athletes who need to limit caloric intake (e.g., for weight loss purposes). It is not recommended for those who are looking for protein, but if you want to add creaminess to your protein shake without adding calories, it is a good solution. People with nut allergies should be careful!

Oat Milk

Oat milk is made from oat grains and water. It is similar to almond milk in terms of nutrition, but in addition to being higher in calcium, oats milk is rich in beta glucan, a soluble fiber. It is nearly free of common allergens like gluten, nuts, and soy, making it suitable for allergic individuals.

Unfortunately, it is not as nutrient dense as milk. While it is high in calories and carbohydrates, it is low in protein, vitamins, and minerals, which must be obtained from other food sources. Sugar and preservatives may be added during the manufacturing process to improve taste and shelf life, so it is advisable to look carefully at the quality label before purchasing.

Rice Milk

Made from either white or brown rice, it is light and has the natural sweetness of rice. It contains zero cholesterol and is rich in minerals and vitamin B. While high in calories and carbohydrates, it is low in protein, so a separate protein intake is still required. It is suitable for those who are lactose intolerant or allergic to soy, but be aware that too much can lead to sugar overload.

Rice milk can be produced in two ways: by filtering rice flour and adding oil and salt, or by fermentation and enzymatic breakdown to oligosaccharides. Oligosaccharide is said to feed bifidobacteria and lactobacilli, so it is expected to help regulate the intestinal environment.

Cow’s Milk

Finally, let’s talk about the standard milk. Milk is high in protein (total protein containing all the essential amino acids found in the human diet in the proper proportions), calcium, and vitamin B12, which is found naturally only in animal products. Its main drawbacks are its high calorie and fat content and its environmental impact compared to plant-based alternatives.

Generally speaking, milk is actually classified as “cow’s milk,” “ingredient-controlled milk,” “low-fat milk,” and “fat-free milk” (Japan Dairy Industry Association). In the U.S. sports community, fat-free chocolate milk is sometimes recommended as a way to help injured muscles recover quickly after an intense workout and to replenish water and vital nutrients lost through sweat.

Conclusion

For athletes, cow’s milk and soy milk are the best beverages because of their high levels of the fatigue-fighting components protein and vitamin B. People who are lactose intolerant or have food allergies should try plant-based milk alternatives and then choose the one that best suits their body. Each has different nutritional ingredients, flavors and tastes, and has advantages and disadvantages.

The key is to choose one that is unsweetened and contains as little thickening agents and other additives as possible. And it is recommended to get the missing nutrients from protein drinks and foods rich in vitamins and minerals.

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Sunbears

Driven by our passion for sports, we have made it our goal to contribute to the development of the sports world. // 私たちはスポーツへの情熱を胸に、スポーツ界の発展に貢献することを目標としています。