A look into a fridge a few decades ago would reveal that the vast majority of milk-drinking Americans were solely reaching for cow’s milk, meaning the kind that contains diary. Nowadays, this isn’t exactly the case—in fact, in 2022, 41 percent of U.S. households purchased plant-based milk. The perks of alt-milk are well-known. Dairy cows contribute a large amount of greenhouse gasses damaging to the environment—much more than vegan milk alternatives, comparatively speaking. We also know that some plant-based milks are just as nutritious, if not more, than cow’s milk. (Oat milk, for instance, has fiber; flax milk is loaded with omega-3s; soy and pea-based milks are rich in protein.) Alt-milks are also an integral part of the diets of many of the longest-living people in the world, meaning centenarians that reside in the Blue Zones regions. Ahead, we delve into how plant-based milk is consumed in these communities for flavor and nutritional benefits alike alongside Dan Buettner and a few nutrition experts.
The two most popular types of plant-based milk in the Blue Zones
According to Dan Buettner, founder of the Blue Zones, New York Times bestselling author, and host of new Netflix series Live to 100: Secrets of the Blue Zones, drinking milk from cows isn’t hugely predominant in any of the Blue Zones (except for some Adventists in Loma Linda, California). Related Stories Folks in Ikaria, Greece and Sardinia, Italy, meanwhile, do consume goat’s and sheep’s milk products (as well as some cow’s milk) in moderation. That said, Buettner tells us that the top sources of “milk” in two of the major Blue Zones don’t come from animals at all—in fact, they’re plant-based. Folks in Okinawa, Japan often reach for soy milk; Adventists in Loma Linda, California, drink a wide array of nut milks. Let’s delve into each.
Benefits of soy milk
According to gastroenterologist Will Bulsiewicz, MD, soy milk is among the best plant-based milks for gut health for several reasons. For starters, it has nearly as much protein and essential amino acids as cow’s milk, with 7 grams of protein per cup. “Soy milk [also] contains isoflavones, which are plant compounds linked to various health benefits, such as reducing the risk of heart disease and stroke, lowering blood pressure, and improving bone health,” Dr. Bulsiewicz tells Well+Good.
Benefits of nut milk
On the other hand, in case you were wondering which types of nut milk have the highest protein (and calcium content), say no more—this list ranks them in order of most to least. And while most nut milks like almond and hazelnut won’t give you the same protein as-is compared to legume-based and/or cow’s milk, you’ll find additional nutrients not found in dairy. Walnut milk is a great example: Walnuts are the only nut considered an excellent source of alpha-linolenic acid or ALA, the plant-based omega-3 fatty acid, making this nut milk a great choice for long-term brain health. Elmhurst’s Milked Walnuts milk (made with only two simple ingredients: filtered water + walnuts) has 1,400 milligrams of omega-3 ALA per serving, is vegan, and has no artificial ingredients. The brand also carries a wide array of plant-based milk options, including almond, cashew, oat, hazelnut… So go nuts!
Cow’s milk, meanwhile, still has important health perks to offer
The above being said, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends including three 8-ounce servings of milk daily (or equal portions of other dairy foods like cheese or yogurt). It’s also worth noting that increasing calcium intake is linked to reducing your risk of developing osteoporosis and fractures, which is extremely important, especially as you age. Additionally, cow’s milk is a great source of calcium (300 milligrams per cup), protein (8 grams per cup), and other essential vitamins and minerals such as vitamin B12, potassium, and phosphorus. What’s more, the idea that dairy is “bad” for you is a misconception, according to registered dietitians. Unless you’re allergic or intolerant of dairy or lactose or have a gut issue like IBS or SIBO, dairy is unlikely to cause gut issues or inflammation. Research also shows that consuming dairy, especially the fermented kinds (think: kefir, Greek yogurt), can even help boost the microbiome and actually reduce inflammation. All to say, although dairy tends to get a “bad” rap in some western nutrition circles, it definitely can be beneficial for many folks. (Unless, again, you have a lactose intolerance or milk protein allergy). Indeed, there are tons of alt-milk brands these days, making choosing just one extremely tough. However, after testing tons of options, Buettner has settled on his all-time favorite: Willa’s Unsweetened Original Oatmilk. What makes it so great, you may wonder? Willa’s product is made with just four organic ingredients (organic whole-grain oats, organic vanilla, water, and salt). It also contains four grams of protein and two grams of fiber (more than most oat milk competitors). Sounds legen-dairy. An RD shares a guide to alt-milks:
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