Milk and dairy in general has always been a big part of my life, and especially my life as a strength athlete. There was a good part of my life that I drank a gallon of milk a day, everyday, and loved every bit of it. I’ve always loved milk in general, but where I really started to consume it in copious amounts was in junior high. I was a skinny weak kid at the time, and one day a coach sat us down in the weight room and talked about the benefits of dairy for getting bigger and stronger. He told us about how he too was a skinny weak kid and was getting picked on, and then he started drinking tons of milk and hitting the weights, and low and behold he got a lot bigger and stronger. He said that drinking tons of milk in addition to lifting tons of weight was the key to getting big and strong. At the time this man seemed like a giant to me, so of course I listened to every word he said. Now I had found it, the secret to hugeness and strength gains was mine! I would ask my mom for a little bit extra everyday so I could buy 3 or 4 cartons of milk at lunch instead of one. At home my dad almost had to get a second job just to support my milk drinking. I wasn’t playing around with this, I wanted to get to the worlds strongest man, and drinking tons of milk was going to get me there. There was no rhyme or reason to what I drank it with, brownies and milk or pickles and milk, all the same. I did this not only to put on size and strength, but because I absolutely loved milk as well. I no longer drink quite as much milk as i did in the past but did it work? Well I would say yes, my junior high coach new what he was talking about. I got a lot bigger and stronger over the years, and ultimately landed at the Worlds Strongest Man competition. Obviously I am not attributing all of that to massive amounts of milk drinking but it certainly helped!
But those were simpler times. There wasn’t quite the controversy with milk that there is now in regards to health and even for performance. People began to question if strength athletes should drink milk or even dairy at all. Many different types of milk have since popped up in grocery stores. Soy milk, rice milk, hemp, milk, almond milk, and coconut milk are just a few of the different milks you can now get. For many different reasons people are trying alternatives to cows milk. But should strength athlete abandon cows milk and go with these other sources? And if so why? Lets take a look.
OBJECTION 1-ALLERGIES/LACTOSE INTOLERANCE
We have a tendency to complicate things in life, so lets keep this simple if you are lactose intolerant, then obviously dairy is not a good choice for you. At this point you might say, “Thanks captain Obvious”, and I would say you are welcome. Here is where it gets tricky though, dairy allergies/intolerance. If everyone of us were to do an allergen blood test, we would find that a great deal of people have some kind of allergy to dairy, even if that allergy didn’t manifest itself in some way that is noticeable. For others however, the effects are very noticeable, and they can show up in different ways. Since I am all about keeping things simple, all one has to do is take a look at what dairy does to them. If you are drinking lots of milk and feeling terrible all the time, try cutting out the milk and see if you feel better. Brilliant right? Before you become offended by the simplicity of what I am saying understand that these seemingly obvious observations have become lost on people. There is a lot of controversy surrounding dairy these days. One final note on this topic is that the main aspect we are looking at with milk is in regards to performance. So even though there may be some kind of allergy or intolerance in the body, the effects of that for the strength athlete are weighed out with the effects on performance, i.e. strength and muscle gains etc. So would I cut out dairy in general, if I was no longer a strength athlete? Maybe so, but I am looking at a risk to reward ratio for increasing performance ultimately as a strength athlete.
OBJECTION 2-WE ARE THE ONLY ANIMALS THAT DRINK ANOTHER ANIMAL’S MILK
I have heard this several times before, and I would first off like to that it is not true. There are other animals out there who if you give them cows milk will drink it. Second off I say if it were true, who cares? We are the only animals who do a lot of things.
OBJECTION 3-ANTIBIOTICS, PESTICIDES, AND HORMONES
Of the main objections these seem to be the strongest. Certainly we don’t want to be loading up on tons of antibiotics if we don’t need them. And of course pesticides are not something you want to be drinking, although it can’t always be know just how much pesticides make there way into the milk you are drinking. Growth hormone, well some milk has it and some doesn’t. There is of course a solution to all of these problems and that is buying raw or organic milk. Both are more expensive and harder to come across. Raw milk is the best form of cows milk but carries with it a small chance of bacteria, like E. coli etc. Organic doesn’t have these risks, because it is still pasteurized and homogenized in order to get rid of the bacteria, but this can be a turn off for some, preferring to not have milk go through those processes. Whichever kind of milk is picked is ultimately a personal choice that must be decided on based on all of these factors. No matter what we can’t get around the fact that milk is a great convenient way to get calories, protein, carbs and fat, as well as vitamins and minerals.
Of course there are some people that simply don’t like the taste of milk, or prefer not to drink dairy because of they are vegan. For those people there are the dairy alternatives. Which one you go with, if any, depends on both taste and what you are looking for from a nutrition standpoint. Here is a look at non animal based milks.
Protein- Soy milk is the closest in protein to dairy at around 6-7 grams per cup.
Calories-Coconut milk is far and away the highest in calories at over 500 per cup. If you are looking for low calories, almond milk has the least.
Fat- Coconut milk is again the highest in fat but remember that fat is not the evil thing it has been made out to be. Hemp milk has the highest amount of omega 3 fats.
Carbs- For the highest amount of carbs rice milk is what you are looking for at around 25 grams per cup, the least amount would go to almond milk and usually is anywhere from 1-6 grams per cup.
Vitamins and minerals- Most are fairly close in many vitamins and minerals including calcium.
Overall best- If weight gain is the goal coconut milk is far and away the best option with rice milk coming in second. For keeping calories and carbs on the low side for weight loss or maintenance, almond milk seems to be the best route. The middle ground seems to be with soy milk or hemp milk. Of course personal taste must also be taken into account.
These days I have cut back personally on my milk drinking. I cut back a little on my dairy intake just to test out how i felt. Through some experimenting I have found what works the best for me is 2 meals with some milk. I also have some cottage cheese before bed just as I recommend in the Performance Nutrition Encyclopedia. This seems to be the sweet spot for me between seeing the benefits and feeling good. I also get my milk organic these days. Milk has so many nutritional benefits to a a strength athlete that is is worth taking a good look at all of the aspects involved with it. If dairy is not for you, hopefully this look at alternative milk will be helpful in determining which one would be best for you.
Josh Thigpen is one of the top professional strongmen in America and is a 3 time ESPN Worlds strongest man competitor. His career has spanned 11 years with 7 as a pro. He has competed in over 50 competitions in countries all over the world. Josh is the author of the revolutionary training system The Cube Method for Strongman. In addition to this Josh is owner and CEO of Conquest Nutrition, a sports supplement company. Josh is a sought after public speaker where he has used his athletic platform to speak to over a million people world wide with an inspiring message.