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home : columns : dr. k June 28, 2016

   
1/16/2014 9:00:00 AM
With so many to choose from, find milk that's right for you

DEAR DOCTOR K: I hear that dairy milk, which I've been drinking all my life, may not be healthy. Should I switch from dairy milk to a different kind?  

DEAR READER: When I was a kid, every mother (surely including mine) believed that dairy milk was healthy. Television commercials called dairy milk "nature's most perfect food" and intoned "you never outgrow your need for milk." I think I remember hearing that every time I watched Davy Crockett on television. (Yes, I know that dates me.)

In the decades since then, we've learned that saturated fats in the diet raise blood cholesterol levels -- and that, in turn, increases the risk of heart disease and strokes. Dairy milk has a little more than 3 percent butterfat, much of it saturated fat. That's why over the past 30 years, grocery stores have started to carry reduced-butterfat dairy milk: 2 percent fat, 1 percent fat and skim milk (very little fat).

I put 1 percent dairy milk on my morning cereal. To my taste, 1 percent is plenty creamy, but skim milk just isn't creamy enough. In fact, after years of using 1 percent milk, when I'm traveling and the only option in a restaurant is 2 percent or whole (3 percent) milk, that milk tastes too creamy.

These days there is a variety of non-dairy, fortified milk beverages on the shelves of most grocery stores -- and plenty of my friends and patients swear by them. Here's a guide to help you choose the milk that's best for you:

-- Dairy milk is a good source of calcium and vitamin D, which promote bone health. Many dairy milk products are also fortified with other vitamins and minerals, such as vitamin A and phosphorus. (Non-dairy milks that are fortified can also be good sources of these vitamins and minerals.) The more butterfat, the higher the calories, total fat, saturated fat and cholesterol.

-- Soy milk is almost identical to dairy milk in its nutritional content. Most brands have moderate amounts of fat, which make them similar in calories to lowfat (1 percent) dairy milk. Soy milk is also fortified with vitamin D, vitamin A and calcium. Soy milks are much higher in protein than other non-dairy milks. This is an important difference for vegetarians and vegans who are trying to meet their protein needs.

-- Nut milks come in varieties such as almond, walnut or hazelnut. They are lactose-, soy- and gluten-free. The unsweetened versions are also lower in calories than other milks. However, they provide much less protein than dairy and soy milks.

-- Coconut milk. One cup of a coconut-milk beverage has the same number of calories as a cup of skim milk. But coconut milk is much higher in fat, especially saturated fat.

-- Grain and seed milks. Rice, oat and quinoa milks are examples of grain and seed milks. They have higher total carbohydrate and sugar contents. The rarer seed milks, such as hemp, sunflower and sesame seed, have the highest fat content of all the alternatives.

On my website, AskDoctorK.com, I've put a table showing how the various milks compare in nutritional value.

(Dr. Komaroff is a physician and professor at Harvard Medical School. To send questions, go to AskDoctorK.com, or write: Ask Doctor K, 10 Shattuck St., Second Floor, Boston, MA 02115.)


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