Illustration for blog post title: The Best Plant-Based Milk According to a Dietitian

The Best Plant-Based Milk: According to a Dietitian

Plant-based milks are the rage these days. How do we navigate all our choices out there? Is there a plant milk that can really compete with cow’s milk? Continue reading to get my perspective and recommendations on what I think are the best choices available.

Illustration for blog post title: The Best Plant-Based Milk According to a Dietitian

So You’ve Decided to Give Up Dairy..

You have your reasons. Maybe you or a family member is allergic. Maybe you’re like more than half the world’s population: lactose intolerant. You don’t want to continue consuming something that gives you bubble gut and the runs. Maybe you’ve seen the research showing the associations between high milk consumption and higher rates of bone fractures. Or maybe you’ve seen the research showing the associations between milk consumption and breast cancer. Maybe you’ve heard that milk might cause acne. Maybe you’re just weirded out by drinking what is, essentially, bovine breast milk.

Whatever your reasons, the question is: now what? What can I replace cow’s milk with for me and my family? Let me walk you through what I look for in a plant-based milk.

Fortified Plant-Based Milks

It is certainly possible to get as much calcium and vitamin D as you need from the sun and other plant foods. However, it may be easier for you (& your picky kiddos) to get it from a fortified plant milk.

Fortification is the process of intentionally increasing the content of one or more micronutrients in a food to improve its nutritional quality. Cow’s milk (in the US) is fortified with vitamin D. Many available plant milks are fortified with both calcium and vitamin D. Some are also fortified with vitamin B12 and the omega-3 fatty acid DHA, among other nutrients.

How do I know the plant-based milk is fortified?

Turn that sucker around and take a gander at the nutrition facts label. You can either look at the ingredients list or look at the section (typically at the bottom of the nutrition label) where vitamins and minerals are listed. There you will see how many milligrams (mg) or micrograms (mcg) of a micronutrient is available per serving.

Nutrition facts label on a plant-based milk with a circle drawn around the vitamin and mineral fortification amounts.

How much calcium and vitamin D do I need to look for?

To answer this question, you first need to answer another: how much calcium and vitamin D should I be consuming? The recommended daily amount of vitamin D is 400 international units (IU) for infants up to age 12 months, 600 IU for people ages 1 to 70 years, and 800 IU for people over 70 years.

Calcium needs will depend mostly on your age, as well as if you are pregnant and/or lactating, or a post-menopausal woman. See the chart below for calcium needs.

Chart of calcium needs sorted by life stage group and mg/day
Chart adapted from here

Plant milks are often fortified with 300mg or more of calcium and 3mcg or more of vitamin D. (1mcg ~ 40 IU). Thus they can be considered a reliable source of dietary calcium and vitamin D.

Hold the Sugar, Please!

In addition to being fortified, I recommend looking for unsweetened (no added sugar) plant milks. Frequent consumption of added sugar, as found in sugar sweetened beverages (SSBs) is associated with undesired weight gain, obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart and kidney diseases, tooth decay, cavities, and more.

American adults consume around 77g of sugar on an average day; American children consume around 81g of sugar per day! The American Heart Association recommends adult women consume no more than 25g of added sugar per day; 36g per day for men. Keep in mind, though, added sugar is not a necessary nutrient. We can survive (if not thrive) without any added sugar in our diets. (Added sugar = sugar that does not occur naturally in the food. On ingredients lists you may see: cane sugar, beet sugar, high fructose corn syrup, maple syrup, agave syrup, brown rice syrup, dextrin, dextrose, etc.)

Most varieties of plant milks are going to have an unsweetened version- it will usually say so on the front of the carton. Of course, you can always look at the nutrition label- look for 0g next to “added sugar” or look for a sugar in the ingredients list.

Protein Content

If you are making the switch to plant-based milks and currently rely heavily on dairy, or if you have young kids, then you will want to choose a variety with a solid protein content. One of the most popular plant milks today is almond milk- however, it is not a great source of protein with around 1g per serving.

Look for plant milks with 5g or more protein per serving.

So What Do You Recommend?!

Keeping all of the above in mind, the plant-based milks I feel are best for most people are: soy milk and pea milk. In particular, I look for organic unsweetened soy milk, and unsweetened pea milk. These are going to be good choices if you have kids or you are wanting something very nutritionally comparable to cow’s milk. The brands I typically choose (not sponsored or an affiliate): Silk Organic Unsweetened Soy Milk and Ripple Unsweetened Original.

Illustration of soy milk and pea milk cartons side by side- these are the plant-based milks recommended by Sarah Whipkey, RDN

If you don’t have kids or do not rely on dairy or plant milk for much of your nutrition, experiment with different varieties and find what you like. Full disclosure: I prefer oat milk in my coffee! Stay tuned for a post on how to make your own plant milk!

Gut Health 101

Why do we need to think about gut health? Does gut health affect our whole body health? How can I promote/optimize my gut health? Can I eat my way to a happy gut?

What is our Gut?

First things first, our gut is the non-fancy word for our digestive system. Quite literally our intestines. When discussing “gut health” and our gut microbiome/microbiota, the focus is primarily on our large intestine aka bowel aka colon.

Our colons are so much more than a poop shoot! They house the vast majority of our microbes. Humans have trillions of microscopic living things on our skin and in our intestines. In fact, we house more microbial cells than human cells! There is a lil pocket in our colon, called the cecum, where you can find the lion’s share of our microbiota.

Illustration of large intestine with description of where microbes are housed in the cecum

Crazy to think that this pocket of bacteria could be such a vital determinant of our whole body health!

The Gut Microbiome & Why It Matters

We each have anywhere from several hundred to more than 1000 different species of bacteria in our intestine. But our bacterial profile is different- something like a fingerprint- unique to each individual. The types of bacteria that make up our gut “fingerprint” impact our predisposition to different diseases, affect our mood, affect our immunity, and can even impact how much weight we gain. With each passing year, researchers are learning more and more about just how impactful our gut microbiome is to our health.

The quickest and most direct way we populate and influence the health of our gut is through our diet. What we eat feeds us and our bacteria. When we have our guts populated with good bacteria, we reap the benefits. Good bacteria produce metabolites and short-chain fatty acids (SCFA) which are anti-inflammatory. However, the opposite is also true. Bad bacteria produce metabolites that are pro-inflammatory. When your gut has more pro-inflammatory microbes, you experience dysbiosis. Dysbiosis leads to damaged colon walls, and increased intestinal permeability (aka leaky gut). Inflammatory endotoxins can then leak into your bloodstream causing mass inflammation. These endotoxins have been linked to chronic diseases such as Alzheimer’s, coronary artery disease (CAD), type 2 diabetes, autoimmune diseases (Crohn’s, multiple sclerosis, fibromyalgia, autism, etc) and other metabolic conditions (obesity, chronic kidney disease, gout, etc).

Process of dysbiosis.

Eat Your Way to a Healthy Gut

So what do our gut microbes love to eat? Fiber! Our bacteria live and thrive on dietary fiber. And what nutrient are Americans severely deficient in as a whole? Fiber. Our modernized, western society has completely changed the food we eat and the way we eat food. Salt, sugar, artificial sweeteners, chemical preservatives, additives, highly refined carbs, and an abundance of grain-fed animal proteins comprise many of the foods we eat today.

The rates of irritable bowel disease (IBD) and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) have been steadily increasing in western societies. These diseases are not seen in more rural societies where people have more microbial diversity. These are not mild conditions. They are debilitating and completely overtake your life. We’re talking about symptoms of gas, bloating, abdominal cramping, any combination of diarrhea &/or constipation, and nausea (with IBS). And the above plus additional symptoms of rectal bleeding, bloody stools, and actual damage to the bowels through persistent inflammation (with IBD).

I highly doubt we are going to see a mass transformation to becoming a hunter & gatherer society again. So what’s a more practical solution to populating our guts with different & “good” bacteria? Eat more whole plant foods! Americans simply are not eating enough whole plant foods. Our microbes yearn for that delicious soluble and insoluble fiber. Give it to them!

Fiber the Fixer-Upper

Our gut microbes have the ability to use dietary fibers and transform them into SCFAs. The three main SCFAs are acetate, butyrate, and propionate. SCFAs are the superheroes of our bowel. Together, they make our colons more acidic which prevents the growth of inflammatory bacterias. This suppression of bad bacteria allows more good bacteria to grow (thus preventing dysbiosis). The more you eat fiber (both in amounts and with regularity) the more efficient your gut becomes at extracting SCFAs. What else do SCFAs do in the colon? They are absorbed into the cells lining our colon walls, repairing them and making them tighter, thus reducing permeability and “leaky gut” syndrome.

Beyond our gut, SCFAs play a major role in optimizing our immune system, improving our cognition, improving our blood sugar regulation (thus alleviating the effects of T2DM!), reducing the risk of developing cancer (as well as an having ability to kill cancerous cells), and can even be a factor in preventing obesity. This is not an exhaustive list of what roles SCFAs play in our whole body health, btw. Remember though, the way to get these superhero SCFAs is through regular (and adequate) consumption of dietary fiber!

Tips for Adding Fibrous Plant Foods to Your Diet

Not everyone is ready or willing to completely overhaul their diets. Believe me, I know. But most people are going to benefit from consuming more whole plant foods. Consider the following tips to help you add fibrous foods your gut will love:

  • Make one meatless meal. Yes, just one. Be intentional and find one plant-based meal to make.
  • Make a meatless day (hello, Meatless Monday).
  • Try eating one meatless, plant-based meal per day. Breakfast is an easy way to start your day with whole plant foods. Hot whole grain cereals- like oatmeal- topped with fresh fruit, sweet potato & tempeh hash, whole grain bread toasted with nut butter & fresh fruit…YUM!
  • Plan your snacks– and make them whole plant foods. Fruit & nut butter, nuts, hummus & veggies, crunchy chickpeas, kale chips, etc.
  • Change the proportion of plant and animal foods on your plate. No need to go cold turkey. Add a large salad to your meals, add a serving of fresh fruit, eat a smaller portion of meat.
  • Try ingredient swapping. Love tacos? Try using mushrooms, or walnut taco “meat.” Try a bean chili vs a meat one.
  • Don’t get caught up on transitional foods. If your goal is to eliminate all animal products, fake meats & cheeses have come a long way & can help with the transition. However, keep in mind that replacing animal foods with highly processed foods is not health-promoting in the long-term.
  • Educate yourself! The more you learn about how plant based foods improve your health, the easier it becomes to choose them in your everyday life. (Shameless plug for following my own blog to facilitate your plant-based education 🙂 )
  • Change your mindset. A “lack” mindset can be detrimental to transitioning to a plant-forward diet. Rather than focusing on what you’re cutting out or eliminating, be excited about the new, delicious and nourishing foods you’re adding to your diet.

Other lifestyle practices to implement: drinking plenty of water, getting plenty of sleep, and increasing physical activity!

Our guts are amazing. And even more so is our ability to make them more functional and healthy through our dietary choices. As always, I am here to provide personalized and in-depth guidance on how to tackle your gut health (and whole body health) through your food.

blog cover for protein for a plant-based diet blog post

Protein for a Plant-Based Diet

Ahh, the age-old question. “How/where do you get protein on a [vegan, vegetarian, plant-based] diet? The answer may surprise you: we get it from… plants. 😉 Yep, real-life, actual plant foods. You know, vegetables, whole grains, beans & legumes, nuts/seeds, even fruit.

blog cover for protein for a plant-based diet blog post

The Breakdown of Protein

Let’s go ahead and state the obvious: protein is absolutely an essential nutrient. We need it, okay? Proteins are made up of amino acids, of which there are 20. Our bodies only synthesize 11. This means we need to eat the other nine from foods. (In case you’re wondering: histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine are the ones we can’t make.)

Amino acids, and thus protein, are responsible for building, maintaining, and repairing our muscle, connective tissue, and skin. An adequate intake of protein through our diet is essential to maintain cellular integrity, function, health, and reproduction.

But How Much do we Neeeeeeed?!

There are some terms to get to know, to really understand how much protein we need in our diets: the Estimated Average Requirement (EAR) and the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA). Recommendations for our macros & micros typically come from these.

gif of muscled man dumping protein powder into his mouth
(Note: I actually recommend NOT doing this 👆)

EAR – a nutrient intake value that is estimated to meet the requirement of half the healthy individuals in a group. The EAR of protein for both men and women between the ages of 19-50 is 0.66g/kg/d. So, in other words, a 154 lbs (70kg) man* would require 46g protein per day, while a 125 lbs (57kg) woman* would require 38g protein per day. (*These are commonly used reference weights.)

RDA – the average daily dietary intake level that is sufficient to meet the nutrient requirement of nearly all (97-98%) healthy individuals in a group. The RDA of protein for both men and women between the ages of 19-50 is 0.8g/kg/d. So for our same man and woman as above, would be 54g protein per day and 46g protein per day, respectively.

So please note that these are based on “healthy” individuals and are averages. So no, not a one-size-fits-all recommendation for every single person in existence. But, generally, your need is going to fit somewhere around these averages. That being said…

How Much Protein are We (Actually) Eating?

Enough. More than enough. Like seriously- almost double the amount as described above. In a study comparing the nutrition profiles of diets ranging from non-vegetarian (omnivorous) all the way to strict veganism, each group was averaging over 75g protein daily. Yes- even those eating only plant-based foods are easily surpassing the upper range of recommend dietary protein.

Protein deficiencies are virtually unheard of in the US. In fact, less than 3% of men and women between the ages of 19-50 years consume less the EAR of protein. So we really don’t need to worry about not getting enough protein. (Stay tuned to find out what nutrient we should be concerned about.)

Okay, So Why Does It Matter Where We Get Protein?

Alright, my friends. What additional nutrient do plant sources of protein have that animal sources do not? It may be the most common nutrient deficiency in the US, considering less than 3% of the population consume the minimum recommended amount…. FIBER!

It’s fiber, people. Not only can you get more than enough protein from plants, but also an essential nutrient for digestive (and whole body) health.

High-protein, low carbohydrate diets have long been touted for their ability to improve health and weight management. These diets typically mean high animal protein and not enough plant foods. You may initially feel better on this type of diet if it means you’re cutting out large amounts of breads, sweets, and processed junk foods. However if you’re not consuming enough whole plant foods (spoiler alert: Americans aren’t), it also means you’re losing out on fiber and the formation of short chain fatty acids (SCFAs) in your gut, which are anti-inflammatory. High animal protein diets have also been shown to increase N-nitroso compounds (NOCs) which are known carcinogens.

So What are Some Plant Sources of Protein?

Below is a list of 15 protein-packed plant foods. Notice you can find protein in grains, beans/legumes, nuts, vegetables, and even fruit. Consuming a diet rich in diverse plant foods

infographic of 15 high protein plant foods

If you’ve been plant-curious or feeling run down & wanting to make a change- check out what I offer!