Like many dancers, English National Ballet’s Madison Keesler is very particular about what she eats. She reads up on nutrition research and often tweaks her diet to follow the latest health recommendations. Lately, she’s gotten into making her own almond milk. “Based on research I’ve seen, I feel that too much dairy isn’t healthy,” says the vegetarian dancer. “But I recognize that protein is very important, especially for athletes. So I often drink almond milk mixed with a hemp seed protein.”
Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet’s Billy Bell, on the other hand, simply likes the flavor of vanilla almond milk. He starts most mornings by pouring it in his breakfast bowl. “Cereal’s a comfort food,” he says. “But I don’t always like the taste of cow’s milk.”
It’s not just Keesler and Bell: Almond milk has become a popular choice among many dancers. Following a 79 percent increase in American consumption in 2011, almond milk eclipsed soy milk in 2013 as the best-selling plant-based milk in the United States. Other plant milks, like hazelnut, oat and hemp, are hitting the market in increasing numbers, too: In 2014 alone, more than 50 new milk products that have nothing to do with the cow have appeared on grocery store shelves. Nonetheless, almond milk remains the most prominent.
But beyond taste and trendiness, what does it actually offer dancers? And how does almond milk compare with its dairy counterpart? Both types of milk provide important nutrients. Yet simply swapping one for the other could leave you with major holes in your diet.
The Nutrition Facts
Almond milk has at least 50 percent fewer calories than conventional milk, which can make it appealing to dancers concerned about staying lean. But it also has far less protein and fewer healthy fats to help you recover and provide the muscle power for your next class or performance. While an 8-ounce glass of low-fat cow’s milk contains approximately 8 grams of protein, and respectable amounts of omega-3 and 6 fatty acids, the same amount of almond milk contains only about 1 gram of protein and none of the omegas.
Fortunately, both cow and almond milk offer plenty of calcium and vitamin D, which work together to keep bones strong. Almond milk also provides almost half the daily requirement of vitamin E, which is good for the immune system, eyes and skin. This is a benefit that cow’s milk does not offer.
Store-Bought Vs. Homemade
Although off-the-shelf nut milks are convenient, there are additives to be aware of. For example, there is a debate over carrageenan, derived from red seaweed and used by many manufacturers to add “texture” to almond milk, which, on its own, is more watery than traditional milk. Research in lab animals and cell culture suggests carrageenan could exacerbate inflammatory bowel conditions like Crohn’s disease, but this has not been demonstrated so far in human studies. The good news is that some companies have removed carrageenan and other additives from their products. Concerned consumers simply need to read the labels.
If you make your own almond milk, it will keep refrigerated for about four days. All it takes is a cup of almonds, water and any extra flavorings you might want to add (see sidebar). “I like knowing exactly what is going into my food,” say Keesler, who makes her own with dates to naturally sweeten the milk without adding sugar. “This way I know there is nothing unnatural.”
An Athlete’s Almond Milk Diet
Nondairy milks may be “healthy chic,” as Jorie Janzen, a registered dietitian who consults for dancers as well as Olympic-bound athletes, puts it. But if you substitute almond milk for dairy, you’ll have to make up for the lack of protein and healthy fats in other parts of your diet.
If you’re looking for a snack for energy, Janzen says that you’re better off eating real almonds (about 20 to 25) in order to get a substantial amount of calories, protein and fiber. Or she suggests using almond milk as the basis for easy-to-digest puddings, such as vanilla chia seed, or mixing it with puréed pumpkin, chia seeds and cinnamon.
Almond milk might also need a boost if used for recovery after a tough workout, says D. Enette Larson-Meyer, PhD, of the University of Wyoming, a registered dietitian, exercise physiologist and author of Vegetarian Sports Nutrition. “There’s an advantage to drinking your recovery snack,” she says, pointing out that many stomachs can’t handle solid foods right away. “Almond milk as a fluid is desirable, but maybe in a smoothie rather than alone.” Janzen recommends throwing hemp hearts, or hulled hemp seeds—available at most health food stores—into a post-workout almond milk smoothie. “You’ll get a lot of protein, plus healthy omega fats,” she says.
“I’m grateful that milk alternatives exist,” adds Janzen. “But trendy foods must be used wisely.”
Make Your Own Almond Milk
1 c. raw almonds
4 c. water
1 soaked vanilla bean, 1 date, splash of vanilla extract or cinnamon (optional)
1. Combine almonds with water in a bowl and soak for 8 to 12 hours. (Though you can get away with 1 to 2 hours.)
2. Drain and rinse the almonds, then place them in a blender with 4 cups of fresh water. You can add a soaked vanilla bean, vanilla extract, date or cinnamon for flavor. Blend on highest speed for about 1 minute.
3. Strain nut milk through a fine metal sieve (which may require several rounds) or a nut milk bag or cheesecloth that has been doubled or quadrupled. Refrigerate unless you will drink immediately. Shake jar or stir before using.
Yield: About 4 cups
Nutrition: Approximately 55 calories and
1 gram of protein per cup