Bone health

Dairy vs soy vs almond vs other milks - how to make the best choice for your nutrition needs

Non-dairy milk options are well and truly mainstream these days. While soy milk has traditionally saved the day for many dairy intolerant individuals as a milk substitute, today there is a wide range of milk choices that allow food and drinks to be enjoyed that may not otherwise be well tolerated.  But while you enjoy your almond or soy milk latte, it’s worth a fleeting thought about the nutrition quality of your milk.  Just because a milk might look the same or be used in the same way, it doesn’t make all milks equal from a nutrition perspective.  There are significant nutrient differences across the various milk options and these are important to consider (in conjunction with our overall nutrient intake from foods).

How do the milks differ?

The nutrition composition of a milk will depend on the source. For plant-based milks, the nutrition composition of the wholefood is not automatically translated to the milk.  For example, almonds are rich in a range of vitamins and minerals and provide protein, however almond milk is far lower in protein and minerals like calcium.  

Small differences in carbohydrate, sugars and fats between the different milks aren’t generally too much of a concern, other than perhaps the higher fat content in some coconut milk products and the higher sugar content of oat and rice milk.  More important is the protein and calcium content.

Protein

Most alternative milk options contain little or no protein, and the protein present is often low quality.  Soy milk is the exception - it has a similar protein content to dairy milk and it is high quality.  The quality of protein becomes particularly important if you are using milk in a recovery smoothie or shake after exercise. 

If your preference is rice or almond milk over dairy for example, ensure to add in a high quality protein source eg. try adding protein powder, almond meal, chia seeds to a smoothie with an almond milk base.

Calcium

The other nutrient to look out for is calcium, although many commercial products are now fortified with calcium up to a similar content as dairy milk.  If you choose organic non-dairy milk varieties, these are the ones less likely to be fortified with calcium, a quick check of the label should tell you.

Milk facts and figures (based on a selection of brands available in the supermarket, please read the label to determine the specific nutrient content of the brand of milk you use).

*Milk and low-fat milk refer to dairy varieties

*Milk and low-fat milk refer to dairy varieties

Dairy foods are a rich source of high quality protein and calcium.  If you can’t tolerate dairy or choose not to eat dairy, check your milk’s nutrition profile and adjust your daily food intake if necessary to fill some of the gaps for protein and calcium.

If you are interest in performance nutrition updates, please leave your details here for my newsletter and recipes.  You can also follow me on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, and keep an eye out for my new book due out later this year.

 

 

Salmon and Ricotta Frittata

Image by  Bec Doyle Photography , from the book  Eat Right For Your Life , Wilkinson Publishing

Image by Bec Doyle Photography, from the book Eat Right For Your Life, Wilkinson Publishing

Looking for a protein-packed lunch or easy dinner?  Eggs can be prepared in so many ways and this delicious frittata combines the protein from eggs, salmon, cheese and milk to make a filling dish.   The salmon adds healthy omega-3 fats plus calcium, so along with the cheese and milk, this dish will help you to meet your calcium requirements.  If you don't tolerate lactose well, use a lactose-free milk and mix in some tasty cheese instead of the ricotta.  You could also add some leftover roast vegetables, or serve with a delicious big green salad.  Leftover frittata is great for breakfast or snacks the next day too!

Salmon and Ricotta Frittata

Serves 4

 Ingredients:

2 tsp oil

2 spring onions (scallions), sliced

100g/3.5 oz baby spinach leaves

400g/14 oz tin of salmon, drained and flaked

100g/3.5 oz low-fat ricotta cheese, crumbled

6 eggs, whisked

1/3 cup (80ml) low-fat milk

1 tbsp chopped dill

½ cup/50g low-fat cheese, grated

 Method:

  1. Heat the oil over a low heat in a non-stick fry pan with a heatproof handle, add the spring onions and spinach and cook until the spinach wilts.  Remove the pan from the heat and add the drained salmon and crumbled ricotta, stir gently so it is evenly spread over the bottom of the pan. 

  2. Whisk the eggs lightly, combine with the low-fat milk pour into the pan and continue to heat on low until the eggs are almost cooked, being careful not to burn the base of the frittata.

  3. Sprinkle with chopped dill, grated low-fat cheese and salt/pepper to taste then place under a pre-heated grill until the cheese is melted and the frittata is cooked through. Serve with a green salad.

This recipe is from my book Eat Right For Your Life.  If you love healthy recipes, I have a new book due for release later this year also, all about performance nutrition.  Plus don't forget to leave your details here on my blog page so I can send you more recipes and performance nutrition info in the meantime.  You can also follow me on Facebook and Instagram, where I put lots of photos of dishes eaten at home and out and about.

Vitamin D for athlete health and performance

It is quite likely that you may have low Vitamin D levels.  Recent estimates indicate that over 75% of the general population may be Vitamin D deficient.  If you are an athlete, you may be at even higher risk of having low levels, and this is a problem because Vitamin D is important for health and potentially performance.  In recent weeks I have found myself talking to many athletes about Vitamin D.  The end of winter is approaching in Australia, a time of year where Vitamin D levels can be on the downward slide.  I have also read a number of journal articles of late that highlight the important role of Vitamin D for athletes.

I am prone to low Vitamin D levels.  I am not a great one for regularity in taking supplements, so I am probably Vitamin D deficient right now if I am honest.  Particularly as we are continuing to endure a pretty cold winter here in Melbourne, and most of us in the southern states will find that our Vitamin D levels decline by the end of winter when we haven’t seen much sun for a while.  So what is all the carry-on about Vitamin D?  Why do we need it, who is at risk of deficiency and how can you improve your Vitamin D levels?

Why are so many people Vitamin D deficient?

Vitamin D is a pretty clever little vitamin and plays an important role in many of our body systems.  The big problem with Vitamin D is that we generally don’t know that our levels are low until something major happens eg. bone issues.  Unlike iron, where our body will often let us know via various symptoms that our levels are on the decline, Vitamin D isn’t quite as helpful and we can go for a pretty long time without being alerted to low levels.  The only reason I found out that my levels needed a boost was through a routine blood test when I was pregnant, so goodness knows how long my levels had been low for.

Unfortunately sometimes when you address one issue it can create another.  Sunscreen is essential for protecting our skin from the sun’s rays.  If you block the sun, you help to reduce the risk of skin cancer.  But you also block the sun’s amazing ultraviolet (UV) radiation which is required for the production of Vitamin D in the skin.  So all of our slip, slop, slapping, which is absolutely important to avoid burning our skin, doesn’t do much for our Vitamin D. 

Who is at risk?

Lack of sunlight is the number one risk factor for low Vitamin D.  So if you spend a lot of your daylight hours inside, like a number of athletes I work with who train predominantly indoors, your levels may be low.  Athletes may also have increased physiological demands for Vitamin D, compared to the general population.

Other individuals at higher risk include:

  • indoor lifestyle eg. work, study.

  • if you cover your skin for religious reasons.

  • if you have naturally very dark skin.

  • if you avoid the sun for cosmetic reasons or skin protection.

  • specific medical conditions.

There is some debate over the cut-off values for Vitamin D levels in the blood, and whether the set levels are in fact too high, meaning that more people are being diagnosed as being low in Vitamin D.  It is important to speak with your GP or medical professional to determine the best way to address your Vitamin D status and needs.

Why is Vitamin D important?

Bones - Vitamin D controls calcium levels in the blood and is required for the absorption of calcium from the gut, which in turn is important for bones.  Low Vitamin D can increase the risk of musculoskeletal problems, including bone conditions such as osteopenia and osteoporosis.  For athletes, an increase in bone turnover with low Vitamin D can increase the risk of bone injuries such as stress fractures.  Sufficient Vitamin D may help to prevent this.

Immune System - Vitamin D is thought to have a role in maintaining a healthy immune system, and some studies suggest that Vitamin D deficiency may increase the risk of viral respiratory tract infections. Winter is often when Vitamin D levels decrease, so if you are prone to getting sick in the cooler months make sure your Vitamin D levels are kept up throughout.

Mental health – There seems to be a link between Vitamin D and mental health, including moods and even depression.

Muscle strength – Vitamin D may have a particularly important role for improving muscle strength in athletes.  There is a potential for increased size and number of type II fast twitch muscle fibres and a study in athletes showed a positive impact on muscle function with Vitamin D supplementation if levels are low.

Injury prevention - Low Vitamin D may increase the risk for inflammatory-related injuries.

Performance - Few studies have looked at Vitamin D and its direct effect on performance in young adults, however multiple performance studies in older adults have related low vitamin D levels to decreased reaction time and poor balance.  There may also be a potential impact on VO2 max.

Strategies to increase Vitamin D levels

  • Spend some time out in the sun without sunscreen on  

    • Find a balance between sun exposure for Vitamin D and protecting your skin against skin cancer.  The amount of time required for exposure will vary depending on where you live.  Check the SunSmart website for more details on exposure times in Australia.    

  • It's difficult to obtain enough Vitamin D just from foods.  Only 5-10% of our Vitamin D may come from food.  Foods that are rich in Vitamin D include– salmon, dark-flesh fish, egg yolks, fortified foods (like milk), UV mushrooms.

  • Vitamin D supplementation may be required for certain individuals.  Speak with your health professional about appropriate dosages if you have been found to have low Vitamin D levels

Summary:  For athletes, there is limited evidence to support vitamin D as a direct performance enhancer, however optimal Vitamin D is important for health, immune function and reduced risk of bone injuries such as stress fractures, and muscle injury. Although Vitamin D is not shown to have a direct performance effect, the indirect impact could make a significant difference to performance and health/injury outcomes.  Further research is required to determine the magnitude of effect of vitamin D on performance, in particular the areas of strength, power, reaction time and balance.

This post presents information of a general nature only.  For individual advice about nutrition and supplementation you should consult with an Accredited Practicing Dietitian or appropriate health professional.
References: 
  • Ogan,D. & Pritchett, K.  Vitamin D and the Athlete: Risks, Recommendations, and Benefits. Nutrients 2013, 5:1856-1868

  • Von Hurst, P.R. & Beck, K.L. Vitamin D and skeletal muscle function in athletes. Curr Opin Clin Nutr Metab Care 2014, Nov;17(6):539-45

  • SDA Fact Sheet – Vitamin D

  • AIS Fact Sheet – Vitamin D