Milk didn’t used to be this confusing, right?
Indeed, the world of milk has really expanded in recent years. When you walk down the dairy aisle at your grocery store, you’ll see all kinds of alternatives to cow’s milk, such as nut milk, oat milk and rice milk, among many others. And even with cow’s milk, there’s whole fat, reduced fat (2%), low-fat (1%) and nonfat (skim). It can be hard to know which milk is actually your best bet.
We spoke to Isabel Jacobs, a clinical dietitian at Banner - University Medical Center Phoenix, about how to navigate your options. In her experience, cow’s milk is still the standard. She explained why, as well as the big differences between the various fat levels. (Don’t worry, it’s actually pretty simple.)
Why cow’s milk?
Jacobs recommends cow’s milk because it has essential nutrients for a balanced diet, like protein, calcium and vitamins A and D. “So, if you have no existing allergies to milk or milk protein, it’s a safe and healthy choice,” she said.
When it comes to cow’s milk, Jacobs recommends skim and low-fat (1%), as opposed to whole milk. Nutritionally, here are the biggest differences between them, according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA):
- Calories: 83 grams per cup for skim milk, 102 for low-fat milk, 146 for whole milk
- Fat: 0.2 grams per cup for skim milk, 2.4 for low-fat milk, 7.9 grams for whole milk
- Omega-3 fatty acids: 2.5 milligrams per cup for skim milk, 9.8 for low-fat milk, 183 for whole milk
Those omega-3 numbers may jump out to you. Whole milk is truly packed with important omega-3s, but Jacobs recommends getting them from other sources instead — olive oil, peanut oil, safflower oil and sunflower oil as well as nuts, avocados and fish — since whole milk is high in saturated fats, which can negatively impact heart health. “Not all fats are created equal,” she said.
You may notice that cow’s milk contains sugar, but Jacobs points out that this sugar is naturally occurring. There’s no added sugar here, but with other milk alternatives there’s often added sugar — another reason to stick with cow’s milk when you can.
The USDA recommends three dairy servings per day. And for most people, this is a good standard to follow. These servings can be milk, or other types of dairy, such as cheese. If your body tends to disagree with dairy, the USDA recommends soy milk as an alternative.
Understanding whole milk
While skim and low-fat cow’s milk are usually your best options, Jacobs said there are certain times when whole milk is beneficial. For example, whole milk can be good for developing children, since they need additional fat content for development.
People often misunderstand whole milk’s impact. For years, the assumption was that whole milk’s high fat and calories would make you gain weight. However, lots of academic studies have shown this isn't true. The calories and fat in whole milk are more likely to impact your cholesterol than your weight. This cholesterol is why whole milk may not be your best option.
The different types of cow’s milks all have the same amount of protein (8 grams per cup). Because of this, the lower-fat offerings are good “nutrient-dense” options — they have a much different calorie-to-protein ratio.
Make the most of milk
To recap: Cow’s milk is a very good option if you aren’t allergic, low-fat and nonfat options are better than whole fat, and three servings a day is ideal. While you do need the omega-3 that’s so abundant in whole milk, you’re better off getting it from non-milk sources (nuts, oils, fish, avocados). And if you’re allergic to cow’s milk, you may want to try soy milk instead.
If you’d like to schedule a visit with a dietitian, visit bannerhealth.com. You might also consider reading these related articles, written with help from Banner Health experts.