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Should You Go Dairy-Free?

and what non-milk milk is right for you!

by English Taylor

Milk used to be simple. The “Got Milk?” ads showed Taylor Swift, Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen, and even Mischa Barton (sigh, The O.C.) donning glorified milk mustaches. By drinking the recommended three glasses per day, they kept their waistlines trim, muscles strong, and bodies nourished. 

But just a few years later, we’re overwhelmed online and at the grocery. When it comes to milk, a well-known source of dairy, many articles claim it causes breakouts or bloat, and has too much sugar. Whole Foods offers multiple types of non-dairy milk, like soy, almond, hemp, coconut, or cashew, as well as regular dairy milk. Even Starbucks now has coconut milk for the dairy-wary. 

What’s the real difference between dairy and non-dairy milk, and is one truly better for us than the other? We’re eager to do what’s best for our bodies, but are hesitant to jump on any bandwagons before doing research. To get to the bottom of the dairy debate, we spoke with Sarah Baker, founder of The Balanced Babe multimedia website, certified health coach and nutritionist.  

First, we asked Baker to define what makes milk dairy or dairy-free. According to Baker, dairy milk comes from cows, while non-dairy milk comes from other sources like nuts, seeds, or fruit. But, she warns, it’s still not quite that easy. “You can’t just read the front of the box and buy it if it says ‘non-dairy,’” says Baker. “Some products, like milk or creamer, say non-dairy, but on the ingredient list there may be a protein derived from milk, like whey, which can be dangerous if you have an allergy or condition where you can’t consume dairy, like lactose intolerance.”

This led us to our second question: Are all those health bloggers snapping pics of their almond milk matcha lattes on Instagram lactose intolerant? Is the dairy-free trend just for those with an intolerance or allergy, or does it make sense for everyone? Baker explains that today, more than ever, we’re hyper-aware of what we’re consuming. On top of that, we’ve got more and more options. More awareness and options give us a better chance of figuring out what makes us feel our best.

“More individuals are discovering that they’re lactose intolerant or simply have a lactose sensitivity,” says Baker. Wondering if this is you? “Drink a cup of dairy milk and see if you feel like you just ate a can of beans,” says Baker. (We recommend trying this on a night you have zero social plans.)

But just because you may have dairy-milk sensitivity, that doesn’t necessarily mean other types of dairy are off-limits. “I, myself, have a sensitivity to milk, but oddly not feta cheese or frozen kefir,” says Baker. Ultimately, she advises testing various types of dairy to see how your body reacts.

Baker’s two favorite types of non-dairy milk are hemp and almond because they are the easiest to digest. Hemp milk is a seed milk that comes from the marijuana plant, but not the part of the plant that gets you high. It’s made from simply mixing hemp seeds and water—something Baker says you can do at home by following a recipe (this is true for almond milk, too). Almond milk is, you guessed it, a nut milk. Made from almonds and water, this is a low-calorie option that has vitamins D and E. The latter keeps your skin glowing. “For any non-dairy milks, try to find brands that are unsweetened, so you’re nixing the added sugar,” says Baker.

“Do your research and read the labels to find one that fits your personal nutritional needs,” says Baker. For instance, you may be looking for more protein, less fat, fewer calories, or something specific to your health. For example, those with nut allergies should steer clear of nut milks. To help us nutritionally compare types of dairy-free milk, Baker broke down two of her favorite brands.

Whole Foods Organic Almond Milk, Unsweetened (serving size 1 cup)40 calories

0 sugars

20% calcium

1g protein

Other ingredients include Vitamin D2, Vitamin E, and magnesium

Living Harvest Unsweetened Hemp Milk (serving size 1 cup)80 calories

0 sugars

30% calcium

2g protein

Other ingredients include Vitamin D and Vitamin B12

Baker surprised us by explaining that different non-dairy milks can be used for various occasions. “Coconut milk is the best alternative to put in your coffee—it’s definitely the creamiest,” says Baker. “Hemp milk has a mild taste, so it’s great to add to baked goods or cauliflower mashed potatoes, because it doesn’t take away from the other flavors.”

Just want a glass of milk? Baker swears that almond milk tastes great alone or in a bowl of cereal. Or, if you don’t end up feeling like you just ate a can of beans, as Baker so bluntly put it—go ahead and finish up your glass of regular.