Nancy, I eat a vegan diet, hence I do not drink cow’s milk. Which is a better source of protein: soy, almond or rice milk?
There’s no debate: Soy milk is a far superior source of protein compared to almond or rice milk. That’s because soy, like cow’s milk, contains complete proteins and offers all the essential amino acids needed for building muscles and healthy bodies. Almond milk and rice milk, on the other hand, are protein-poor. Their labels even say, “Not to be used as an infant formula”. That says to me the products are not life sustaining. That is, a little baby can thrive on soy (or cow) milk, but not rice or almond milk. Note: the term “milk” can be misleading. A preferable term is “beverage”, “drink” or “dairy alternative.”
When comparing the food labels, you can see that:
• Soy milk offers about 7 to 11 grams of protein per 8 ounces (depending on the brand).
• Almond milk offers only 1 grams of protein per 8 ounces. Almonds are expensive, so not much ends up in the beverage. You’d be better off eating a handful of whole almonds.
• Rice milk offers 1 gram protein —or less—per 8 ounces. Rice milk is mostly carbohydrate and is “watery.”
Most almond, rice and soy beverages are fortified with calcium, but be sure to read the label because not all are fortified. For example, Nature’s Promise rice milk has 30% of the RDA for calcium whereas Rice Dream offers only 2%.
You want to buy a product that is not only calcium-fortified but also fortified with (at least) vitamin D and B-12.
In terms of taste and acceptability, you’ll want to sample several brands; they can vary greatly in taste and texture. The most popular options tend to be sweetened with rice syrup, evaporate cane juice or some other natural sweetener.
Here’s how some popular brands compare (8 ounces per serving):
Almond Breeze 60 calories 1 g Protein 2.5 g Fat 30% calcium
Nature’s Promise 100 calories 0 g Protein 2 g fat 30% calcium
Rice Dream 120 calories 1 g Protein 2.5 g Fat 2% calcium
Silk 100 calories 7 g protein 4 g Fat 30% calcium
EdenSoy 130 calories 11 g protein 4 g Fat 20% calcium
“Since I’ve given up meat, I’ve been eating lots of nuts and peanut butter for protein” reported my client. She thought she was eating TONS of protein, but the reality is, nuts and peanut butter are not as protein-dense as many people think.
While nuts do offer protein, only about 5 to 10% of their calories come from protein and about 70% of their calories come from fat. (The good news is, the fat in nuts is health-protective so is a positive addition to a sports diet.)
Most athletes need at least 60 grams of protein. Two tablespoons of peanut butter offer only 8 grams of protein for 180 calories. You could get three times more protein—26 grams of protein—in the same amount of calories of Greek yogurt!
Beans (as in kidney beans or hummus) are also lower in protein than many vegetarians realize. Beans offer about 6 grams of protein in a half-cup. While they are a smart choice for athletes because they offer a hefty does of carbs and can both fuel the muscles and heal/build muscles, they only offer about 12 grams of protein per 180 calories.
You also have to eat big portions of tofu and garden burgers…
The trick to getting enough protein as a vegetarian is to read the food labels for protein information. You'll discover you need to consume generous amounts of plant proteins at each meal and snack. Yes, you can successfully consume a balanced vegetarian diet; you just need to educate yourself about the protein content of the foods you choose. More information is readily available in the protein chapter of my Sports Nutrition Guidebook.
I have a question about getting calcium from foods vs pills.
I’ve been a lacto-octo vegetarian for about 30 years and I’m a big soy milk drinker. You say calcium-fortified soy milk is a good source of calcium. I don’t see much difference between getting the calcium from the soy milk or from a pill, because the soy milk has had a calcium pill dissolved in it to make it “fortified”. What’s the difference?
There's not much of a difference in terms of calcium. But when you get the calcium via soy milk, you at least get the protein and a myriad of other good nutrients along with the calcium. If you just take the pill, you might “forget” to drink the soy milk and you'll miss out on all the good stuff it offers--including high quality protein that vegetarians might not get otherwise.
As you know, eating whole foods is always preferable to taking supplements; so many bioactive compounds are in foods that are not in pills. Supplementing a whole food can further boost the health value.
Enjoy your fortified soy milk!
For more information about calcium, protein and supplements:
Nancy Clark's Sports Nutrition Guidebook, Chapters 1. 7 and 11