Originally published 19 Aug 2016. Last updated 15 April 2021.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
- Should You Drink Milk After A Workout?
- Is Soy Milk Better Than Dairy? The Risks of Eating & Drinking Soy
- Are Soylent and Schmilk Safe?
Every day it seems like a new study gets published about milk and dairy that contradicts another we just finished reading. Just when you think the book is closed on a food or nutrient, it gets reopened!
Is Milk and Dairy Good For You?
To help answer the question about whether milk is truly good for us–meaning it actually promotes health and wellness instead of causing us harm–we need to understand why there’s still so much confusion. Part of this is because when studying a particular topic (like the health benefits of consuming milk), researchers use different methods. One study may ask older adults what they ate and drank when they were younger. Another may follow young people for 20 years to see how their eating habits influence their health as they age. Depending on how the data were collected and who chose to participate in the study, you might get very different results.
Influence of the Dairy Industry
Here’s where it gets a bit more complicated: when it comes to the dairy recommendations specifically, it turns out that the dairy industry has a lot of money in their pockets, and sometimes they use that money to influence nutrition recommendations. I’ll share an example of this with you…
About 10 years ago, when the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) was designing the newest Dietary Guidelines for Americans, they felt that based on all of the studies they examined, adults really only need to consume about 1-2 cups of dairy per day. Remember, 1 cup of milk is about the size of your fist. If you drank about that much milk in a day or had that as part of your bowl of cereal in the morning, you’re good!
They were getting ready to publish these new guidelines saying, “American adults don’t actually need 3-4 cups of milk or dairy each day like we once thought… 1-2 cups per day would be just fine.” Well, once the dairy industry got wind of this, they started creating a huge stink. They told the USDA: if you start saying Americans only need 1-2 cups of dairy each day, then we will stop giving you money for your programs. You heard right… the USDA receives money from the dairy industry. And because the USDA receives large contributions from the dairy industry, they quickly changed their recommendations. You’ll still see that they recommend 3-4 cups of milk or dairy each day for most healthy adults.
What this means is that when we look at some of the scientific studies out there, some of them may have been paid for by folks in the industry. You may think, “But researchers are supposed to just report the findings! They’re not supposed to be biased or swayed!” You would be absolutely right, but this isn’t the reality. Yes, scientific studies can be swayed one way or another, and sometimes that pressure comes from whoever funded the study. Scary, I know. This partly explains why you might see conflicting opinions, especially about this topic in the news.
If you want to learn more about how and why it’s possible for people that don’t know a thing about nutrition are allowed to change dietary recommendations, definitely check out Marion Nestle’s book, Food Politics.
The Real Guidelines on Milk
Back to the original question about milk…
Unless you have an allergy to milk or lactose intolerance, drinking cow’s milk, sheep’s, and even goat’s milk is fine. Milk has a lot of important nutrients for the body: it’s a decent source of protein, but a great source of calcium and riboflavin. It also contains potentially beneficial probiotics to help support gut health.
It does contain quite a bit of sugar (in the form of lactose), so there’s no need to drink it in large quantities. I would say 1-2 cups of milk or dairy each day is fine. For example, you could have some milk with your oatmeal in the morning and then have 1 cup of Greek yogurt in the afternoon as a snack. That would be plenty.
Should you drink it after your workout to help you achieve those muscle gains? Not necessarily.
If it’s the only way you can get yourself to re-hydrate after a workout because you simply can’t stand drinking water, then fine. But water is truly the best. The studies that they did on milk or chocolate milk were mostly done using well-trained athletes… think 5% body fat and a whole lot of muscle. Athletes aren’t built like the rest of us so they can afford those extra calories and sugar.
But for the rest of us, we would do much better if after a workout, we drank some water and actually ate nutritious foods. I discussed what to eat before and after your workout to help maximize your gains and performance in another episode.
Since we're on the topic of milk, let's discuss soy milk and whether it's better than regular milk.
I still remember cruising along the dairy aisles when I was still in school and there would only be one brand of soy milk available (this was quite a while ago). Usually, there was plenty of it. No one really wanted to buy it because it tasted odd… I'm being kind. Their words were often much worse and far more descriptive. But I'm picking on soy milk here.
Obviously soy comes in many forms: tofu, seitan, and many meat analogs–foods like Boca and Gardenburgers–and of course plan old soybeans. Today, there are so many dairy alternative options, and food manufacturers continue to improve the taste of soy milk and other non-dairy varieties.
How Soy Milk Compares to Dairy and Other Dairy Alternatives
If we were to compare rice, coconut, or soy milk to cow’s milk from a nutrient perspective, we see that soy milk comes closest.
Calorically, soy milk has slightly more calories per serving when compared to cow's milk. From a nutrients perspective, in addition to calories, we only tend to focus on 2 other nutrients in cow’s milk: protein and calcium. If you were to drink non-flavored soy milk (no vanilla or chocolate added), the amount of protein per serving will be close to cow’s milk. But soy milk is often lower in calcium unless during manufacturing they add extra calcium (which is called “fortification”).
If we were to compare almond milk to cow’s milk, almond milk may be lower in calories, protein, and calcium. Coconut milk is usually higher calories (because of the higher fat content) and lower in calcium and protein when compared to cow’s milk.
So it does in fact appear that soy is probably the closest to cow’s milk when we think about it in the context of calories and protein, but may be lower in calcium depending on whether the companies fortify their soy milk with it.
Are There Benefits to Drinking Soy Milk?
You know me–I like to look at what the research says–so let’s dive in.
Some studies have found that consuming soy early in life may lower the risk of breast cancer later. There are also some data that suggest that consuming soy products may lower bad cholesterol levels (also called “LDL-cholesterol”) in the blood. Soy may have these health benefits because it contains compounds called isoflavones.
Isoflavones are found in many plant-based foods (soy, of course, being one of them). You can also find them in other beans and legumes. It’s thought that these isoflavones reduce inflammation in the body. This is a good thing, because when we’re stressed, or are sick, or have a chronic disease, the body is experiencing some inflammation.
Think of this inflammation like a fire. When you’re really sick, like with a bad case of the flu, there is often lots of inflammation, which is why you may have a sore throat, a runny nose, muscle pain, run a fever, etc. This is all caused by the body trying to fight off the flu. These symptoms are a result of inflammation and in this case, the inflammation is like a raging fire. Eventually, that fire will be extinguished and our symptoms will go away.
But sometimes we can have lower grade inflammation that goes on for years and years. For example, those that suffer from a lot of stress may have low grade inflammation for years if they don’t manage to cope with their stress. Think of this like a small campfire that never gets put out. It just continues to burn. Eventually that slow burn will start to damage the body.
Isoflavones act like a fire extinguisher. They can help reduce this inflammation in the body. Sure enough, when we look at the research, isoflavones found in soy may help protect the health of our blood vessels (like our arteries), may promote bone health, and even prevent dementia.
Are There Risks Associated with Drinking Soy Milk?
A couple of common concerns often come up: soy milk's affecting estrogen levels and interference with thyroid conditions.
Soy Milk and Estrogen
As far as soy isoflavones acting like estrogen in the body, we’re finding that this doesn’t seem to be the case. I know that guys often worry about consuming soy products because they are afraid of the estrogen-like effects, but have no fear. Researchers have even gone so far to study women who have had a history of breast cancer and see whether consuming soy makes them feel worse or whether they increase their risk of having their cancer come back. It turns out that consuming soy may actually decrease the risk for having a recurrence of breast cancer.
Soy Milk and Thyroid Conditions
What about those with thyroid conditions? Consuming soy products does not lead to thyroid problems. But, for those that have a diagnosed thyroid condition and are taking medications for it, it is wise to avoid consuming soy-based foods around the same time you take your thyroid meds. It’s possible it may interfere with the drug’s effectiveness.
Genetically Modified Soy
Then, there’s issue of soybeans being genetically modified. At this time, we don’t know whether genetically-modified foods are helpful or harmful to our health. What we can say is that genetic modification has improved food production.
Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that I am pro- or against genetically modified foods. Because the other argument is that when we genetically alter these foods, we end up messing with the food’s proteins on a molecular level. In turn, this may change how the body responds to the food–some may experience something similar to an allergic response. This may be because their bodies aren’t used to these proteins that are now activated in these genetically modified foods.
But I repeat: we don’t know that this is what’s going on for sure. These are just some of the theories out there.
The bottom line is that consuming soy milk, tofu, soybeans, and so on is perfectly fine for most folks. It may actually prevent many chronic diseases like certain forms of cancer, cardiovascular disease, and protect the health of the brain. So enjoy!
Let's now continue with another question a listener asked on the show.
I can definitely relate to wanting to be able to eat on the run. I often find myself running late to a meeting or running out of the house to catch my morning train to work (yes, we do have commuter trains in California). Having something that’s quick, easy, and nutritionally balanced to eat while I’m racing down the highway would definitely be helpful wouldn’t it? Food manufacturers are aware of this problem and have created a number of convenience products to meet this demand.
Large corporations like Nestlé®, which owns Carnation®, have marketed “all-in-one” shakes that supposedly provide a nutritionally balanced meal in a tasty, easy-to-consume package. There are so many varieties of these products out there that I won’t be able to discuss them all here, but hopefully after reading this, you’ll get a sense of where to begin your quest for a better meal replacement.
Soylent and Schmilk
In the Silicon Valley area of California (an area of California known for its high concentration of technology industries), two products became quite popular amongst the computer programming crowd over the past year: Soylent® and Schmilk®.
The name “Soylent” may sound familiar because of the 1973 film titled, “Soylent Green” starring Charlton Heston. SPOILER ALERT: Soylent Green was a food product in the film and was manufactured using human flesh. Why a company would want to name its product after such an awful recipe is beyond me (plus, whenever I think of this film, I think of the late great Phil Hartman’s impression of Charlton Heston running around wearing an ascot yelling, “Soylent Green is still made out of people! It’s made of people!” So, I can’t help but laugh).
But I digress. I should be clear that the Soylent® I am discussing here is not made of people. Rather, Soylent® and Schmilk® are designed to be meal replacement shakes. The companies market their products as nutritionally complete, well-balanced alternatives for those on the go.
What is it that’s so attractive about these two products? They’re relatively cheap, quick and easy to make – all qualities similar to another popular food movement: fast food! So of course this would be a successful campaign! And these products are likely popular in Silicon Valley especially because:
Here’s what I think about Soylent & Schmilk
While Soylent’s nutrient profile and ingredients seem appropriate, nothing beats consuming whole foods. For example, the simple act of chewing helps us partially digest food which then makes it more biologically available to the rest of the body. If food is pre-mixed and blended, we skip some of that process. Just because it is in liquid form, doesn’t make it more bioavailable. Additionally, Soylent® came under fire last year because their product contained high levels of lead and cadmium.
Whether or not this is true, this brings up an important issue. Products like these do not undergo the same regulations as foods you would find at your local supermarket. So you can’t always be sure what you’re getting. Schmilk® provides high doses of most vitamins and minerals, which may lead to some unwanted side effects such as stomach pain, vomiting, and dizziness.
Ultimately, I wouldn’t recommend these products until their safety has been accurately tested and approved by an independent third party organization. Also, I would not recommend these products for those with a history of liver or kidney disorders.
What about long-established products like Carnation® breakfast shakes or Ensure®?
Many clinicians use these for hospitalized patients or those that simply aren’t able to consume enough nutrients through diet alone. So they’re often called “meal replacement” shakes. While these products will likely not have the same issues with quality and purity like those made by smaller companies, we still need to be careful. This is because these meal replacements are often loaded with sugar. And again, while they do provide vitamins and minerals, they are not going to contain all of the nutrients you would find in real food sources.
What most experts recommend is that if you’re still able to eat, eat whole foods. If, however, you are unable to eat and are at risk for malnutrition, these types of meal replacements are better than nothing.
Meal Replacement Drinks That Are Better For You – Helpful Guidelines
So I don’t leave you hanging, here are some helpful guidelines to follow if you are considering using a shake as a quick snack:
- Be sure it’s 200 calories or less per serving.
- Look at the ingredients list. The first ingredient should be something other than water or sugar. For example, if the first ingredient is milk, that’s fine. But, if it’s something ending in –ose, like sucrose, fructose, polydextrose, glucose, etc. choose another product. This is because if sugar is listed near the top of the ingredients list, the shake is made mostly of sugar.
- Speaking of protein, aim for 10-20 grams per serving
- The product should have less than 6 grams of total fat
- No more than 40 grams of total carbohydrate
Let’s not forget that the creators of these products are entrepreneurs or business folks. They of course want to create a successful business, which is great!
We need to make sure, however, that we understand what we are feeding our bodies. We should have a fairly good idea of whether these foods will do more good than harm. I’m not convinced that when consumed regularly, these products will do us good.