Which Milk is Right for You?

One question I get asked, probably more than most others is ‘which milk is best’. Second to that would be ‘is dairy ok?’. So, what are the actual answers? And is milk a good choice for a triathlete?

Why is milk often recommended for athletes?

As a recovery option, cows milk is a great choice for its protein, electrolyte, carbohydrate and fluid content. 600mL provides 2g of leucine, which is optimal for enhancing muscle protein synthesis as well. Soy milk is another popular choice, providing the required leucine in 900mL, along with adequate protein and carbohydrates as well.

Cow’s Milk: Full fat vs Low Fat vs Skim

Full cream milk has around 3.8g fat per 100g. For years low fat milk was recommended by many as a healthier alternative, however recently higher fat versions have come back into vogue due to changes to knowledge around fats and health. For people with very high energy requirements, I’ll often suggest full cream milk for the extra calories provided compared with the lower fat versions. However, if an individual prefers the taste, or needs a lower fat milk for some reason, these are still appropriate choices. For recovery, low fat milk is recommended, as the lower fat content means faster absorption of all the other nutrients.

Lactose-free milk is another dairy based option that has had the lactose sugar removed. This is otherwise very similar to lactose-containing milks.

Goat Milk

Milk from a goat, which is otherwise very similar to cows milk. Goats milk still contains lactose, and has high biological availability, similar to that of dairy milk.

Plant based milks

Soy, almond, oat, rice, coconut…. The list goes on. Gaining more popularity, these plant based milks vary in nutritional quality. If choosing a plant based milk, choose one that:

  • Is fortified with calcium for good bone health
  • Doesn’t contain added sugar. In particularly, avoid added high fructose corn syrup (I’m looking at you USA!).
  • Is rich in protein. Many plant based milks provide inadequate protein, particularly when compared with dairy milk. If it is not rich in protein, keep this in mind if using for recovery drink, as it may not provide the adequate nutrition required.

So what do I recommend?

When asked which milks I suggest, my counter-response is often something along the lines of ‘it’s important we look at the diet as a whole’ and ‘how much would you be consuming each day?’ and ‘when is it normally consumed’.

Encouraging cow-based milks in the evening before bed (to assist with sleep and muscle growth overnight), or straight after exercise for the leucine content is usually my first port of call.

Then it may mean switching it up. For example, including almond, soy or rice milk with breakfast or in coffee at times not ‘post-workout’. Or, maybe one week it is cows, then it’s almond, then soy, then back to cow.

I love seeing people mix their milks up to be honest, as each type has varying health benefits, and negatives. Nutrition isn’t a one size fits all approach, and choosing the right milk shouldn’t be either.


*I do want to state that this post is written in an Australian context; situations are likely to be a little different around the world with additives and treatment of animals.

Featured photo credit: via Visualhunt

Chloe McLeod
Chloe McLeod
Chloe McLeod has had a keen interest in nutrition from a young age due to food intolerances as well as a realization about the important role food plays in an active lifestyle. She has a bachelor’s degree in Nutrition & Dietetics, a master’s degree in Public Health, has received Sports Dietetics training through the Australian Institute of Sport, and has earned qualifications for ISAK Level 1, and is a member of DAA, SDA, and PINES. She is a two-time marathoner, avid trail runner, and also enjoys staying active through snowboarding and Pilates.