Over the past decade, the milk aisle has become undoubtedly crowded. Dancers often consider alternatives to dairy even without the presence of a diagnosed intolerance or allergy. I’ve previously detangled why dancers need not avoid dairy, especially as a rich source of protein and calcium. But what about dancers with a medially-diagnosed intolerance? Or those struggling with a milk allergy? And for the dancers who simply prefer dairy-free alternatives, is there a best option? This article will break it down.
What are the benefits of milk for dancers?
Milk is rich in bone-building nutrients, specifically calcium, vitamin D, vitamin K, phosphorus, and protein. Since vitamin D deficiencies are especially common among athletes who mainly train indoors, we can assume that dancers are prone to similar circumstances. Vitamin D not only enhances the absorption of both calcium and phosphorus, but it also acts as a hormone and supports immunity. When choosing a milk option, there are a few considerations to start with:
- The presence of an intolerance (like lactose) or allergy (like milk protein)
- Environmental impact
- Nutritional profile
When it comes to non-dairy alternatives, the options become a bit more complicated. The most common plant-based milk include:
The pros of cow’s milk
Before we dive into the alternatives, I’d like to focus the spotlight on cow’s milk simply because it often gets a questionable reputation. Hard truth: cow’s milk offers an economical option that’s packed with nutrition. It’s rich in both protein (up to 8 grams per serving) and calcium. As mentioned earlier, these are two nutrients critical for a dancer’s muscle recovery and bone health. The protein in dairy is also considered “complete” and high in biological value, meaning it contains all essential amino acids needed for anabolic growth and when compared to plant-based alternatives, is most efficiently absorbed and utilized by the body,
Since cow’s milk is offered in a variety of options (differences are mainly in the percentage of fat kept throughout the production), it also offers a more satisfying experience. Though, this is only true for varieties that include fat (2% and full fat). I’ve previously discussed why dancers should not fear fat. Reconsider if you’re choosing fat-free or skim milk for the purpose of wanting a “healthy” alternative. The fat in cow’s milk also helps in the absorption and transport of vitamin D and vitamin A, two nutrients found in abundance in dairy products.
If you’re lactose intolerant, lactose-free versions of cow’s milk exist. This is especially helpful since lactose intolerance occurs in about 75% of the population. From a nutritional standpoint, these options are comparable to standard cow’s milk with the exception of lactose (the sugar derivative naturally found in animal-based milk).
But isn’t cow’s milk unhealthy?
No, and as mentioned earlier, there are several nutritional benefits to cow’s milk. However, there is longstanding speculation over the dairy industry, including the treatment of animals and the overall carbon footprint of dairy farms. Organic dairy options are typically local, so there’s less transit time between farm and store. This can help to reduce the overall carbon footprint. Organic dairy also has a longer shelf-life (a result of pasteurization practices).
The pros of plant-based milk
For dancers unable to tolerate cow’s milk, even lactose-free varieties, then plant-based alternatives are a great alternative. Plant milk is known to be more environmentally friendly with CO2 emissions lower than those from dairy farms. Here are a few alternatives to consider:
Soy milk for dancers
Soy milk is known to be especially beneficial because similar to cow’s milk, it’s considered a complete protein (up to 8 grams of it). Quick recap: complete proteins contain all essential amino acids needed for muscle growth and are highly bioavailable (more efficiently utilized by our bodies). Soy milk is also often fortified with vitamin D, making it even more comparable to cow’s milk. Last, soy milk is thicker than some of the other nut milk (like almond and cashew) and rice milk. This gives the milk a satisfying mouthfeel.
If you’re worried about the hormones in soy, particularly because soy contains a plant estrogen called phytoestrogen, then consider this: research associating soy intake with breast cancer risk is both limited and fails to show a link between soy and increased breast cancer risk.
Nut milk (almond, cashew) for dancers
As their popularity grows, nut-based milk alternatives like almond and cashew are becoming more accessible. From a nutritional standpoint, nut milk is often lower in calories, fat, carbs, and protein. This is also why almond milk in particular grew in popularity (diet culture loves to promote low-calorie eating plans). Protein also helps us feel full. And with half the protein as cow and soy milk, nut milk can taste watered down and leave you feeling unsatisfied.
Oatmilk milk for dancers
Oatmilk is the newest plant-based milk alternative to hit. the market. When compared to nut milk, oat milk offers a creamier mouthfeel and is higher in protein (about 4 grams per serving). This makes oat milk a suitable option, especially for your post-class recovery smoothie. My one qualm with oat milk is its cost–nearly 4 times that of cow’s milk (almost 50 cents per cup!)
Are dairy-free alternatives unhealthy?
It’s important to acknowledge that plant-based milk is made with additional ingredients not often found in standard cow’s milk. In a recent interview with HuffPost, I explain that while “many consumers fear additives in food, but the truth is, these additives serve a very functional purpose not only to improve the taste of our food but to also make our food safe for consumption.” The same holds true for milk.
The bottom line: if you’re looking for a boost in protein, cow’s milk or soy milk will be your best bet. If you’re confident that your diet contains an adequate amount of protein foods, then choosing another option you have a taste preference for is suggested!