Words by Sarah Kasman
Dairy products include milk, and any products derived from milk, such as; yogurts, cheeses, dairy desserts, etc. Should we, as athletes, consume dairy products? The short answer is yes! These foods contain an abundance of essential nutrients that offer a whole host of health benefits. Not only are dairy products rich in calcium, but they contain 9 other essential nutrients such as protein, vitamin A, vitamin B12, zinc and magnesium. All of these nutrients, especially calcium, are important for athletes because they are involved in generating EVERY muscle contraction you make! Without the intake of these key vitamins and minerals, we would have a hard time walking and talking, let alone participating in sport. Furthermore, dairy products are typically fortified with vitamin D, which is beneficial for bone health.
Leading research suggests that dairy products can play an important role in sports nutrition. For example, you can use dairy as a fuel source before, during and after physical activity. Dairy products such as yogurt, cow’s milk, cottage cheese and cheese will help you rehydrate, refuel and repair your muscle fibres. When you consume dairy products, you are consuming a combination of nutrients, as opposed to nutrients in isolation, which is preferable because in combination they are better absorbed and utilized by your body. Additionally, the latest research shows that an increased consumption of dairy products is related to a decrease in body fat and better overall health indicators.
If it is not possible for you to consume dairy, perhaps due to an intolerance or allergy, then try dairy alternatives such as; lactose free milk, soy milk, almond milk, coconut milk or rice milk. Each of these has a different nutrient composition and profile. For example, 8oz of unsweetened almond milk contains 2.5g of fat, 1% DV of protein and 2.5g of carbohydrate for 60 calories, whereas 8oz of skim milk contains 0.5g of fat, 16% DV of protein and approximately 12g of carbohydrate for about 90 calories. Even different brands of the same products have different nutrient profiles than others. It is quite typical to see both sweetened (higher carb), and unsweetened (lower carb) options in almond, soy or coconut milk.
What determines your choice of milk beverage should be your tolerance, taste preference, nutrient density and purpose for consumption. If you’re using a protein powder for recovery in a shake, I would suggest using almond milk, as its low protein content will balance out the large dose (20-25g) of protein that is in a typical powder. This way you consume the ideal amount of protein to be absorbed by your body (15-25g) without having excess protein being turned into fat. If you are trying to use the beverage as a fuel source for before or after a workout, then cows milk or soy milk would be more appropriate because of their richer carbohydrate and protein content. This will help provide energy for your muscles and repair damaged muscle fibres. See the table on the opposite page for nutrient comparisons.
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