Nutrition Advice

What Kind of Milk is Best?

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By Bethany Thayer, MS, RDN

With the dizzying array of milks appearing on grocery store shelves, you may be scratching your head trying to figure out which options are best for you. The answer is easy: Old-fashioned cow’s milk is still the best choice for nutrients.

In fact, a cup of dairy milk is not only rich in protein, it also boasts the primary nutrients of concern for Americans: calcium, potassium and vitamin D. (Of course, it tastes good, too). Unfortunately, though, some people have difficulty tolerating dairy milk.

Milk Upset

Lactose is a naturally occurring sugar in milk. Most people can drink it without a problem. However, some folks don’t produce enough lactase, an enzyme the body needs to break down lactose. So, when they drink milk they may experience gas, bloating and other tummy troubles. The good news: If you’re lactose-intolerant, you can drink special milk products, such as Lactaid®, which supplies the lactase necessary to digest milk easily.

Another subset of the population is actually allergic to milk. Their immune systems recognize the protein in dairy (casein or whey) as foreign and go on the defensive. The immune reaction can range from mild hives to life-threatening anaphylaxis, so these people need to avoid all dairy milk and products, including cheese, yogurt and ice cream.

Plant Milks Explained

Plant-based milks, like rice, soy, hemp, and almond have very different nutrient profiles from dairy milk.

Generally speaking, plant-based milks are made by grinding the grain, bean, seed or nut, adding water for the right consistency and then adding vitamins, minerals and flavor. They may also have added sugar and salt. Their macro-nutrient mix matches the food it comes from. Rice milk, for example, is high in carbohydrates and lower in fat and protein (just like rice) while almond milk is higher in fat

If there’s one milk you should leave on the shelf, it’s coconut. Not only is it high in calories and saturated fat, it’s also low in all other nutrients. If you love the taste of coconut, stick to coconut water instead.

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Rethinking the White Stuff

Dairy milk isn’t the dietary villain many have made it out to be. In fact, it’s an ideal way to get important nutrients many of us are lacking.

Besides drinking dairy milk, you might also consider cooking with dairy milk. Whether you’re whipping up a smoothie, preparing overnight oats or craving shepherd’s pie, dairy milk can play a starring role.

To make an appointment with a Henry Ford doctor or dietitian to discussion nutrition and your health, visit henryford.com or call 1-800-HENRYFORD (436-7936).

For healthy recipes, cooking videos and more tips on healthy eating, visit our health and wellness blog at henryfordlivewell.com and subscribe to receive a weekly email with our latest posts.


Bethany Thayer, MS, RDN

Bethany Thayer, MS, RDN, is director of the Henry Ford Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention. Earning a bachelor’s degree in dietetics from Michigan State University and a master’s degree in exercise science from Oakland University (OU), Beth chose her career path because she was always intrigued by the blending of art and science to positively impact health. She enjoys communicating with people about healthy living and eating and was a national media spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics for 9 years. Beth was named as Outstanding Dietitian of the Year by the Michigan Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics in 2012 and served as their president in 2015-2016.