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Years ago, the dairy aisle was a pretty straightforward place and “milk” meant dairy milk to most folks. But the times have changed, and we now have a slew of dairy-free options to choose from when we visit our local grocery store or coffee shop. From flax to quinoa — there’s even cricket milk! — the choices can make a person’s head spin.
And to add fuel to the dairy milk-alternative-decision fire, frequent gym-goers have unique needs when it comes to choosing the best nondairy milks for athletes — it must fuel the body with key nutrients, such as protein and electrolytes, to support recovery.
In the sea of dairy milk alternatives, here are five nondairy milks for athletes to keep on their radar.
5 Dairy-Free Milk Alternatives for Athletes
1. Coconut Milk
Coconut milk has become popular thanks to the medium-chain triglycerides it contains. Some experts claim that these fats are not stored in the body, and therefore are a great choice for those who are trying to lose weight or for those looking for an additional fuel source. One theory is that because this type of fat can be used as energy, it can potentially spare muscle glycogen.
This tropical drink, made from the humble coconut, is also a popular workout warrior’s choice because it is a natural source of electrolytes, helping support fluid balance before or after a sweat sesh. Just keep in mind that this milk is lower in sodium, so it shouldn’t be considered a “perfect” electrolyte replacement choice.
Finally, this milk gives a serious boost of magnesium, a mineral that helps relax the muscles, possibly resulting in less soreness and cramps after a workout.
When choosing your coconut milk as one of the best nondairy milks for athletes, opt for a choice that has no added sugars. (Pro tip: Many options that are flavored are loaded with added sugars.) And be sure to avoid the milk choices that come in cans because drinking them can expose your body to potentially harmful endocrine disruptors like BPA.
2. Oat Milk
Oat milk is having a moment in the spotlight, and for good reason. It’s made from the liquid left behind when oats are soaked in water and strained, tastes super creamy and rich when added to recipes and beverages.
Nutritionally speaking, oat milk is one of the only dairy alternatives that contains fiber, a nutrient that can help promote satiety — possibly helping support weight-management goals. It also contains iron, a nutrient that plays a key role in oxygen transport and energy metabolism. Unfortunately, many female athletes are commonly diagnosed with iron deficiency, suggesting an association between sports performance and iron regulation.
Oat milk tends to be higher in calories and carbohydrates when compared with other dairy alternatives. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing for those living an active lifestyle because these factors can fuel a workout in a healthy and natural way.
Of course, there are some things people should watch out for when shopping for oat milk. Some are made with canola oil, an ingredient that may increase chronic inflammation, although more human studies are needed before a direct correlation is made.
Additionally, some oat milk brands may contain gluten. If you are living a gluten-free lifestyle, it is important to ensure that the oats used in the brand you are considering are truly gluten-free.
3. Flax Milk
Flaxseeds are having a moment in the wellness world, and for good reason. Jampacked with anti-inflammatory healthy fats and loads of antioxidants, these little seeds are deceptively powerful.
Flax milk is made from the humble flaxseed and boasts similar health benefits. Especially for athletes who participate in intense workouts, including anti-inflammatory foods may help support improvement in athletic performance. Naturally containing alpha-linolenic acid, a vegan-friendly omega-3 fatty acid, drinking flax milk may help support heart health.
And for the calorie-conscious crowd, take solace in knowing that one serving of flax milk contains only about 25 calories.
4. Hemp Milk
Made from blending whole hempseeds and water, this beverage is a rich source of many nutrients and gives a satisfying nutty flavor, making it one of the best nondairy milks for athletes. And while it is made from the same seed that is used to grow marijuana, it only contains trace amounts of the mind-altering THC.
Hemp milk contains fewer calories and carbs than dairy the option but unfortunately is lower in protein, clocking in at about 2 grams per serving.
Most of the fat in this hemp-based drink is unsaturated essential fatty acids, which help support building new tissue (aka muscle) in your body. This milk also contains 10 essential amino acids, making it a complete source of vegan protein.
Like many other dairy alternatives, hemp milk may include added sugars, depending on the brand you choose, so be sure to read labels.
5. Pea Milk
If you have never tried pea milk out of concerns that it tastes like actual peas, then it’s time to re-evaluate. It tastes nothing like the legume your parents made you eat as a kid — in fact, it’s incredibly creamy and satisfying. Plus, since it is gluten-free, dairy-free and nut-free, it checks tons of boxes for those in the wellness world.
Made from blending pea protein with water and oftentimes vegetable oil, pea milk is an excellent choice if you are focused on getting in quality protein because one serving contains as much protein as a glass of dairy. And when evaluating the specific amino acids that pea milk provides, feel good knowing that pea protein is a natural source of muscle-supporting branched-chain amino acids.
And as long as you are choosing the unsweetened variety, you are getting a no-sugar-added beverage that is chock-full of nutrients.
One word of caution: As is the case with all legumes, pea protein is not a complete protein. Therefore, this drink should not be the only source of protein in one’s diet and instead should be combined with complementary foods. And if you are trying to limit your intake of omega-6 fatty acids, know that the oil used in this type of drink may be a rich source of this potentially harmful fat source.