Common knowledge seems to be that dairy is bad and plants are good, and it’s true — to an extent. Dairy is high in saturated fat, which is a health concern for a growing a number of people around the world.
But it’s also high in protein, calcium, and other essential nutrients that many dairy alternatives lack. Plus, keeping up with inflated demands for non-dairy alternatives is starting to take a toll on the environment. For instance, farmers need more water to grow larger crops, many of which are in areas that are already scarce in resources.
It’s not that non-dairy foods are secretly bad for us. On the contrary, they’re often excellent dietary choices — even for consumers who aren’t lactose-intolerant. But overestimating their benefits could affect our nutrition and the environment, which is why we may need to reconsider our dairy-related choices and ensure we’re focused on the best options.
Milking the Earth for Alternatives
Producing non-dairy milk is often much more efficient than producing dairy milk, but yielding a large enough crop to meet the demand can tax nearby resources. After all, everything has an impact — even growing plants.
For example, it takes about 1,000 gallons of water to grow enough almonds to produce a single gallon of almond milk. Much of that water is obtained from aquifers buried thousands of feet underground. In some parts of the Central Valley, growers have pumped so much water that the ground subsides up to a foot each year.
Bigger crops can also lead to more pesticides and higher greenhouse gas emissions. Agriculture produces about 9 percent of all greenhouse gases, and the world’s population is pushing past 8 billion. The more people turn to plants instead of dairy, the more responsible we’ll need to be with sustainability — and that includes our dairy or non-dairy choices.
Giving Up Nutrients by Giving Up Dairy
In a study conducted by Mintel, consumers were asked why they drank their preferred alternative dairy product, and most agreed that it was a healthy source of necessary nutrients. When it comes to protein, however, this often isn’t the case. The most common dairy alternatives — like almond, coconut, and rice milks — have little or no protein and, in some cases, are high in unsaturated fats and calories.
For instance, almond milk has no saturated fat, but it also has almost no protein. Coconut milk also lacks protein, and it’s high in saturated fat and sugar. Likewise, rice milk has a high concentration of calories and carbohydrates due to its rice-derived base.
Soy milk — as a decent source of protein without saturated fat — may offer a better balance than almond, coconut, or soy. Yet sticking to a diet of nothing but soy milk still won’t provide our bodies with all of the vitamins, minerals, and nutrients that dairy milk provides.
The key is maintaining a balanced diet. Rather than rely solely on dairy or non-dairy milk for all our daily nutrition, we must balance our meals so we get all our nutrients from a variety of healthy foods.
Broadening Our Dietary Horizons
There is no solidly defined ideal of how much protein our diets should contain each day, but millions of people around the world don’t get enough. And increasing our consumption of protein-lite dairy alternatives won’t help.
The Institute of Medicine recommends a minimum of 8 grams of protein for every 20 pounds of body weight, which can be obtained through a variety of healthy, non-dairy foods. But be sure your meal plan contains enough:
- Peas, which contain up to 8 grams of protein per cup when cooked. The proteins in peas are complete proteins, meaning our bodies can process and use them more easily.
- Lentils, which contain up to 18 grams of protein per cup when cooked. Like peas, lentils also contain a good amount of fiber and B vitamins.
- Raw nuts, which can provide up to 7 to 9 grams of protein. Nuts are also convenient and can be carried around to snack on to avoid binge-snacking and unhealthy eating habits.
- Beans, which hold as much as 15 grams of protein per cup when cooked. Like peas and lentils, beans also contain a healthy dose of fiber.
- Leafy greens, most of which can provide up to 8 grams of protein or more. These are also rich in calcium, which is absent in many non-dairy milks.
For the lactose-intolerant, plant-based dairy alternatives are a necessity, and for many others, they’re simply a conscious, healthy diet choice. But they can’t be the only healthy choice in our diets. Be aware of what non-dairy choices contain — and what they don’t contain — and make sure they fit into a well-rounded meal plan that provides all of the minerals and nutrients we need.
Over time, adding variety to our dairy alternatives and turning our attention to other sources of healthy foods will help us live longer, happier lives — while doing our part to help alleviate the environmental burden.