Is milk good for runners? And which kind???
Have you been to the milk aisle in the grocery store lately? I swear, there's 100's of different kinds and varieties and sizes and flavors... it takes up multiple coolers at my supermarket!
With so many options, it can be confusing to know where to start, what you need, and which is best going to help you reach your goals. Not only that, but once you find what you're looking for, are you actually going to like the taste??
There are several kinds of cow's milk on the shelf - what makes them different? Let's first talk similarities. All cow's milk will have the same amount of protein (8 grams per cup or ~240 mL) and carbohydrates (~12 grams). They all have calcium and have lactose, which is a naturally occurring (as in, not added) milk sugar.
The difference between the cow's milk is mainly the fat content. Whole milk is about ~3.5% milk fat and has not had any of the fat strained away. Because of the higher fat content, it is also higher in calories (150 per cup).
Next is 2%, which stands for 2% milk fat (remember, whole milk is 3.5%). It will have less calories and fat than whole milk - around 120 calories and 5g fat. Next is 1% (again, 1% milk fat - around 100 calories), and finally skim or nonfat milk (which has all the fat strained off and 80-90 calories per cup).
Which you choose depends on your goals. Weight maintenance? Likely 1% or skim. Looking to gain weight or struggling to maintain because of all the miles you're running? Choose 2% or whole milk.
I think of cow's milk as the standard against which we're comparing the rest of the milks. But that doesn't mean it's right for everyone. If you have lactose intolerance or a dairy allergy, it's a no-go. And if you're a plant-based runner, this won't be your option either.
Here I'm talking about cow's milk that has been flavored to taste like chocolate. It can be made from skim, 1%, 2%, or whole milk. The protein is the same as regular cow's milk as no protein has been added to it.
There are a lot more carbohydrates in chocolate cow's milk vs regular (~28g vs ~12g per cup) - this is coming from added sugars. While on a regular basis, that's not something your body needs, it can come in handy! Chocolate milk has an ideal ratio of carbohydrates to protein for muscle recovery after a workout. Ever wondered why races give out chocolate milk at the finish? This is why.
This plant-based milk is the first on our list that isn't truly "milk", but a non-dairy milk-like beverage. It is made from ground up almonds and water, then it is strained so that it is smooth and creamy.
Almond milk has some benefits: it is lactose-free (if that's a concern), dairy-free, low in calories, and high in vitamin E.
That said, it is low in protein (way less than cow's milk). Store-bought versions have additional calcium and vitamin D, but homemade versions don't. Many brands and recipes call for added sugar, which could be a concern. And many argue that the resources it takes to make almond milk is bad for the environment. And it is not appropriate if you're allergic to tree nuts!
Our next plant-based milk is made from soybeans and water. If you're dairy and/or lactose-free, soy milk might be a good option for you.
Soy milk has a decent amount of protein (~7 grams per cup), which is similar to cow's milk. The calories are usually similar to 1% or 2% cow's milk, and store-bought versions have added calcium for bone health. But like almond milk, many versions have lots of added sugars.
Like the other plank milks, oat milk is lactose and dairy free. It is all the rage lately because it is creamy and blends nicely in coffee drinks.
It has similar calories and carbohydrates as 2% cow's milk, which is nice to help replenish your muscle post-workout. It has a bit less protein than cow's milk, though (4g vs 8g). Store bought versions are fortified with additional vitamins and minerals.
While oats are naturally gluten-free, there is the risk that oats can get cross-contaminated with wheat. So if you have celiac disease or are very sensitive to gluten, please make sure that your oat milk is certified gluten-free.
For clarity's sake, I'm talking about the coconut milk you buy in a carton, NOT the stuff in a can. That is a bit different.
Coconut milk is made by grating the "meat" of the coconut into hot water and straining it. The kind you buy in the store likely has added vitamins and minerals (like calcium and vitamin D), sugar, and stabilizers.
Coconut milk calories will be similar to nonfat cow's milk, but it has a decent amount of saturated fat, which is less healthy for our hearts. It is also very low in protein, and not appropriate if you have a nut allergy.
Hemp milk is made by blending hemp seeds with water. Like other plant milks, it has been fortified with vitamins and minerals, and probably has added sugar and stabilizers as well.
Nutritionally speaking, most hemp milks will have similar calories as skim milk, but less protein and carbohydrates and more fat. The fat in it is a heart-healthy kind of fat, though! Hemp milk will be nut free, dairy free, and gluten free.
Plant-based vs cow's milk?
Plant based milks are generally lactose-free. There's no dairy, which is great if you have a milk allergy. However, plant-based milks might have their own allergy precautions -like tree nuts!
They're fortified with calcium, vitamin D, and other vitamins and minerals. They often have added sugars and stabilizers to make them taste more appealing and last longer on the shelf.
You can find milks with a lot fewer calories, carbohydrates, and protein... or ones that are similar to cow's milk!
Should I make my plant-based milk at home?
Sure. You'll be able to control the amount of sugar that's added to it., which is good, because so many store-bough versions have a lot of added sugar. However, it likely won't last as long in the fridge, and it will be more clean-up, but it also might be tastier and cheaper!
One thing to note about making your own plant-based milks at home -- you miss out on the added calcium and other vitamins! So be sure you're getting calcium in your diet somewhere else.
So which milk is best for you?
Honestly, everyone is different. There are so many options out there BECAUSE there are so many different needs and preferences. If everybody needed and wanted the same thing, there wouldn't be 100's of choices out there.
What is most important to you? Do you want a milk that provides protein? Do you need the carbs because you're using it in an after-run smoothie? Do you prefer something without any added sugar or other additives?
When I was a kid, you could choose between regular or chocolate cow's milk. And that was still a lot of choices, because there was skim, 1%, 2%, or whole milk. My mom always bought skim milk, so that's what I grew up on. What did you grow up on?? I work with runners to help them figure out which options work best for them - whether that is the milk you drink, the dinner you eat, or the post-run recovery fuel you choose. Fuel better, feel better, run faster. To find out how I can help YOU, click to schedule your FREE runner's nutrition strategy session!