We all love a good milkshake, but we don’t love getting to the doctor’s office and hearing that we need to be worried about our cholesterol. Cow’s milk has many important health benefits but can also contribute to high cholesterol levels. That’s why we’ve gathered up all the best milk alternatives (e.g., non-dairy milks) to satisfy your doctor AND your taste buds.
What is cholesterol, anyway?
Cholesterol is a waxy substance composed of lipids, a category of organic molecules that includes fats and oils. Cholesterol is naturally produced in your liver and is important for creating the tissues, hormones, and cell walls your body needs to function properly.
We most often hear about cholesterol in a negative light — maybe your girlfriends only buy egg whites at the grocery store these days, skipping the yolk in order to reduce their cholesterol. Or maybe your husband got a talking-to from his doctor about cholesterol. But that negative perception is only part of the story.
According to the Cleveland Clinic, there are two main types of cholesterol — low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol and high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol.
You want to watch out for LDL cholesterol, the kind that has given all cholesterol a bad rap. Too much LDL can increase your risk for heart disease, including coronary artery disease.
But while LDL cholesterol is what you need to watch out for, HDL cholesterol can improve your overall health. HDL cholesterol carries LDL cholesterol from your arteries to your liver, where it can be further broken down and excreted.
Only about a third of your LDL cholesterol is carried away by HDL cholesterol, which is why lowering your total cholesterol levels is still important. But a healthy amount of HDL in your diet can help you do just that.
Should I worry about my cholesterol?
First, there’s no need to panic — you might not have anything to worry about. If you haven’t done so already, having your doctor or healthcare provider check your cholesterol levels is a good idea. They can tell you whether you have high cholesterol and, if you do, how to manage it. Millions of Americans have high cholesterol, especially older Americans, because cholesterol tends to increase after the age of 20.
High cholesterol is a risk factor for heart attacks, heart disease, and strokes, but you can definitely manage it. Finding out your cholesterol levels and what you can do to keep them in check is an important first step toward taking charge of your health.
How can I find out if I have high cholesterol?
If you haven’t done so, ask your doctor for a cholesterol screening. A cholesterol screening, or cholesterol panel, is similar to other blood tests. Your doctor might ask you to fast for nine to 12 hours beforehand, and after drawing blood, they will check your levels of LDL cholesterol, HDL cholesterol, and triglycerides (a type of fat in your blood). After the panel is complete, your doctor can tell you everything you need to know about your cholesterol levels. Easy peasy!
If you do have high cholesterol, your doctor will make suggestions and give you a game plan to lower it. They may suggest cutting certain foods from your diet, such as those that are high in saturated fat.
Or they may recommend substitutions such as replacing cow’s milk with nut milk, dairy-free milk, or other milk alternatives.
Why should I try a milk alternative?
Cow’s milk is high in saturated fat and cholesterol, so anyone trying to lower their cholesterol should consider skipping it. But even if you don’t have high cholesterol, finding a milk alternative is smart for other reasons; specifically, if you’re lactose intolerant or generally concerned about your heart health.
Below are all of our favorite nut milks and plant milk alternatives.
Almond milk is one of the most popular milk alternatives out there, and it has a slew of health benefits. It’s made by soaking almonds in water and straining out the liquid, and it’s a super tasty option for people aiming to cut cholesterol. Almond milk comes in several varieties, including vanilla, sweetened, or unsweetened almond milk.
Aside from being low cholesterol, almond milk has other health benefits. It’s low in carbohydrates and reinforced with antioxidant vitamin E, which can help support brain, skin, and blood health.
Just watch out for added sugars — many manufacturers add all sorts of flavors and sugars to their almond milk, which can bump up your blood sugar and have the opposite effect on your health. And, of course, avoid this one if you have any sort of tree nut allergy.
Cashew Milk and Macadamia Milk
While not quite as popular as almond milk, nut milks like cashew milk and macadamia milk are gaining traction among alternative milk drinkers. Other nut milks have a similar nutritional profile to almond milk and may even be slightly lower in calories than almond milk. If you’re a fan of nut milk and can find them at your grocery store, give cashew or macadamia milk a try. You might find your new favorite dairy alternative!
Soy milk is another hugely popular milk alternative. It’s often fortified with calcium, vitamin A, and vitamin D, so it closely resembles the nutritional profile of cow’s milk, and it’s naturally high in protein (approximately eight grams of protein per cup), thanks to the substantial protein in soybeans.
Soy milk tends to have a stronger flavor than other alternatives like almond and oat milk, so consider testing out a smaller carton before committing to it as your milk alternative of choice.
Get excited for our favorite milk alternative: oat milk! Like almond milk, oat milk is made by soaking oats in water (and usually a bit of sugar) and then straining out the liquid. While not quite as nutritionally dense as oats, oat milk contains soluble fiber, which expands in your stomach and helps you feel fuller for longer. Plus, soluble fiber can help lower cholesterol — one study showed that those who replaced cow milk with oat milk had lower LDL cholesterol levels after just five weeks.
If you decide to use oat milk as your milk alternative, choose the unsweetened option, and check the label for added sugars. The natural sugar in the oats means that oat milk is usually sweet on its own — no need for artificial flavors or sweeteners. Better still, oat milk doesn’t contain common allergens, unlike nut milk and soy milk.
You might see the phrase “hemp milk” and wonder if we’ve gone a little mad. But don’t worry — hemp milk is made from ground and soaked hemp seeds, which don’t contain any of the psychoactive substances of the cannabis plant. Hemp seeds are possibly even more nutrient-rich than other types of plant milk ingredients, including almond milk and soy milk, because of their high protein and omega-3 fatty acid content. Omega-3 fatty acids are a type of healthy fat important for maintaining your overall health. Plus, natural hemp milk has zero carbs. Swap cow milk for hemp milk in your latte, and you can take care of your heart health and waistline simultaneously. One drawback: Hemp milk is just gaining popularity, so it will likely be less readily available at the grocery store.
Coconut milk is squeezed from the flesh of the coconut and has a fresh, distinctive smell. You can certainly drink coconut milk right from the coconut, but store-bought coconut milk is often diluted with water to more closely match cow milk’s consistency.
Contrary to popular belief, coconuts are not a type of tree nut, so coconut milk is a great lactose-free alternative for those trying to avoid allergens. Coconut milk has a small amount of protein content but is often fortified to give it more nutritional value. As always, watch out for those pesky added sugars! They’ll turn a healthy milk alternative into a health trap in no time — look for unsweetened varieties for a low-sugar option.
Pea Protein Milk
An up-and-coming non-dairy milk alternative uses pea protein. This option has more potassium than cow’s milk and is packed with protein. Pea milk also contains b vitamins, fiber, and many other nutrients. Swap out your normal smoothie milk with pea protein milk for a vitamin-rich breakfast.
So… are you ready to do your body good?
Whether you’re trying to take charge of your health by lowering your cholesterol, have a newly developed milk allergy or lactose intolerance, or just prefer the taste of nut milk to dairy products like cow’s milk, now is a great time to get into milk alternatives. Find the best non-dairy milk for your preference — your heart and your taste buds will thank you for it!