One percent, 2%, skim, whole... the milk cases at the grocery store are udder-ly full of options. That’s not even counting the dairy-free milks one case over. Between almond, soy, oat, rice and coconut, the wide range of options is proof that you can milk practically anything.
One reason many people drink milk (or cook with it) is because it’s famously good for bone health. Maybe you remember the “Got Milk?” ads featuring milk-mustachioed celebs and facts about strong bones. But that was before the alternative milk revolution, and none of the ads specified which milk to go for.
Consider this your dairy-aisle bone health guide. Whether you’re a dairy drinker or an alt-milk lover, find out which milk option will make you the strongest, according to an osteoporosis specialist and registered dietitians.
Why is milk good for bone health?
Before getting into comparing all the milk options, it’s helpful to have some basic intel about how milk became the MVP of bone health.
Dr. Meredith Warner, an orthopedic surgeon and the founder and CEO of Warner Orthopedics and Wellness in Louisiana, said that a lot of people have heard milk is a good source of calcium, due to clever marketing. She says it’s true that milk does have calcium, but there are better sources of it.
“Green leafy vegetables may be an even better source of natural calcium,” Warner said. “I have no problem with milk and drink a lot of it myself, but be mindful that there are many other sources of calcium.” In other words, if you can’t tolerate dairy, it doesn’t mean you’re doomed to brittle bones.
Calcium is important for bone health because bones are made of it. (They’re also made of protein and other minerals.) When we consume calcium, it strengthens bones, which is important because the body can’t make calcium itself. According to the National Institutes of Health, adults between the ages of 19 and 50 should get 1,000 milligrams a day. (If you’re older or pregnant, you need slightly more.)
But the calcium in dairy milk isn’t the only reason it’s good for bone health. Warner notes that most milks are fortified with vitamin D, which helps improve calcium absorption in the body. Per the NIH, people between the ages of 19 and 50 should aim to get 15 micrograms of vitamin D (or 600 international units) per day. This can be tricky because few foods or drinks contain vitamin D, which is why milks are fortified with it.
The best cow’s milk for your bones is...
In short, all of them.
Seattle-based registered dietitianGinger Hultin says the various cow’s milk options ― skim, whole, 1% and 2% ― all have calcium (naturally) and vitamin D (from being fortified) in similar amounts.
“The primary difference between these milks is the fat content,” she said. “From a bone health perspective, the fat content is less important to consider than ensuring adequate calcium and vitamin D intake. Whether it’s whole or skim, dairy milk can support bone health.”
“Milk fat is thought to be cardioprotective, as opposed to many animal-based fats,” Warner said, adding that she personally drinks whole milk. She also said that many skim and reduced-fat milks contain sugar to improve the taste. But Warner raised an important point: You have to drink a heck of a lot of cow’s milk to get 1,000 milligrams a day. For example, one cup of whole milk has 300 milligrams of calcium, which means you’d have to drink more than three cups to meet the recommended daily intake.
Registered dietitian Dana Angelo White, like Warner, points out that there are a wide range of calcium sources to choose from, including leafy greens, broccoli, citrus fruits and almonds. Because of this, White’s advice when it comes to choosing a dairy milk is to go for the one you like the taste of the best. “If you like whole milk but are trying to force yourself to drink skim milk, you’re going to end up not drinking any milk at all,” she said.
If you’re into goat’s milk, White says the nutritional profiles are very similar, so you can go for that knowing your calcium and vitamin D bases are covered (as long as it’s fortified with the latter). The same goes for lactaid-free dairy milks. “With these milks, the lactose is extracted, but this doesn’t remove the calcium or vitamin D,” White said.
Despite being fortified with calcium and vitamin D, non-dairy options don't have as many of those nutrients as dairy milk.
The best non-dairy milk options for bone health
In general, Warner said that non-dairy milks are not exactly a gold mine of calcium or vitamin D. For example, one cup of Elmhurst unsweetened almond milk has just 60 milligrams of calcium (4% of what’s required for the day) and no vitamin D. A cup of Pacific Foods oat milk has 120 milligrams of calcium (10% of what’s required for a day) and 2 micrograms of vitamin D (10% of what’s required for a day).
“Plant-based milks are fine, but they tend to have a lot of added sugars and are highly processed,” Warner said. If you are vegan or sensitive to dairy, her advice is to get your calcium from other food sources (like leafy greens and almonds), rather than choosing an alternative milk based on what it’ll do for your bones.
If you do want your alt-milk to mimic the nutritional profile of dairy milk as closely as possible, Hultin recommended going for soy milk.
“Soy milk has the closest in protein content to cow’s milk and is almost always fortified with calcium and vitamin D, making it a good option for bone health,” she said. “It’s the non-dairy milk that I recommend the most to my clients.”
To this point, one cup of Silk unsweetened soy milk has 300 milligrams of calcium (20% of the daily recommended value) and 2 micrograms of vitamin D (15% of the daily recommended value). Hultin noted that many soy milks contain sugar, so be sure to check the ingredients and choose something unsweetened.
White pointed out that the majority of alternative milks are fortified with calcium and vitamin D in an effort to have a similar nutritional profile as cow’s milk, something a scientific study that took into account 223 plant-based milks found to be true. However, the study found that only 12% of plant-based milks had a comparable or greater amount of calcium, protein and vitamin D than cow’s milk.
The takeaway is exactly what Warner alluded to: Alternative milks shouldn’t be your go-to source of calcium and vitamin D, so you need to turn to other sources to get enough of these nutrients. To this point, similar to her advice for choosing a dairy milk, White said to go for the plant-based milk you like the taste of the best, while being sure to check the label for sugar and other additives.
To recap: Different dairy milks have similar bone benefits. Most alternative milks have similar calcium and vitamin D content to each other, but not as much as dairy milk. And neither type of milk is the only way to get your calcium. In fact, it’s not even the best way. So drink your milk, but be sure to include other calcium-rich foods in your diet. That’s the best way to get stronger through what you eat — no bones about it.