Gulp It Down
45 calories, 5g fat (4g saturated), 1g fiber, 1g sugar, 0g protein
Unsweetened coconut milk has more saturated fat than other plant-based milks, but it consists largely of lauric acid, a type of saturated fat that seems to be innocuous. "Lauric acid doesn't appear to have any negative impact on arteries or to increase heart-disease risk," says David L. Katz, MD, the director of the Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center. Good news, especially when you consider that coconut milk's velvety texture seems downright indulgent.
Substitute it for cream, which has more than 10 times the fat, in potato-leek and butternut squash soups. "It's an equal replacement, but because coconut milk is thinner, you may want to add flour or cornstarch as a thickening agent," says Julieanna Hever, RD, the author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Plant-Based Nutrition. Or try this next time you make brown rice: Use one part coconut milk to three parts vegetable broth or water; stir in pineapple chunks, chopped macadamia nuts, and red pepper flakes. At the supermarket, go for coconut milk in a carton (which is made by grinding and pressing the flesh of the coconut, then diluting it with water) rather than canned coconut milk (made the same way but not diluted, so it has more calories and fat).
80 calories, 4g fat (0.5g saturated), 1g fiber, 1g sugar, 7g protein
Soy milk, made by soaking and then grinding soybeans, is the most popular dairy alternative on the market; we love that it packs serious protein. "Soy has more protein per calorie than any other food in the plant kingdom," says Christopher Gardner, PhD, the director of nutrition studies at the Stanford Prevention Research Center. With seven grams in a cup (cow's milk has eight), soy milk is an ideal replacement for dairy when you want to build muscle.
Soy has a neutral flavor and a full-bodied consistency that can help slim down high-cal dishes like mashed potatoes. Boil and drain spuds, swap soy beverage for cream (to prevent curdling, take the pot off the burner first) and add garlic, chives, or rosemary for a savory kick. Craving something sweet? Soy milk works even better than fat-free milk in instant pudding (follow the directions on the box, substituting the same amount of soy for the dairy milk). "Skim milk is notorious for thinning out pudding, but the high-quality protein in soy solidifies better for a thicker, more decadent dessert," says Cynthia Sass, RD, the author of S.A.S.S! Yourself Slim: Conquer Cravings, Drop Pounds and Lose Inches.
30 calories, 3g fat (0g saturated), 1g fiber, 0g sugar, 1g protein
If you're watching your waistline, unsweetened almond milk — with about one-third the calories of skim — is a smart bet. It's good for your complexion too: One serving packs 50 percent of your recommended daily intake of vitamin E, an antioxidant that protects your skin from sun damage caused by the effects of free radicals.
The mild, nutty taste works well as a base in smoothies (add some almond butter as well to pump up protein). Or make a creamy avocado dressing, suggests Denise Jardine, the author of The Dairy-Free & Gluten-Free Kitchen. Blend 1 ripe avocado with 1/2 cup almond milk, 2 tablespoons lemon juice, 1 tablespoon miso, dill, black pepper, and some chopped green onion on high speed for about one minute; refrigerate for at least two hours.
More Milk, Please
70 calories, 5g fat (0.5g saturated), 2g fiber, 0g sugar, 3g protein
Eco-lovers, rejoice: You're sipping one of the earth's most sustainable crops. This drink is made from the ground seeds of the cannabis plant. It doesn't contain any THC (the psychoactive compound in marijuana), but it does supply 10 essential amino acids, including omega-3s for heart and brain health. "Your body can't produce omega-3s, so it's important to get them in your diet," Hever explains.
With a distinctive earthy flavor akin to sunflower seeds, hemp milk isn't for everyone, but it works well as an equal substitution for dairy milk in pumpkin pie and banana bread. With grassy undertones, it's also a natural choice to slim down creamed spinach or coleslaw (so long, full-fat cream and mayo!). Try Sass's easy recipes for these side dishes:
"Creamed" spinach: Heat minced garlic and onions in 1 teaspoon coconut oil, then add 1 pound fresh or thawed and drained frozen spinach. Cook until leaves soften, then add about 1/2 cup hemp milk and salt and pepper. Continue to cook until the milk reduces and thickens.
Coleslaw: Puree 1/4 cup hemp milk with 1/4 cup almonds, 1/2 cup chopped mango, 1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar and 1/4 teaspoon grated ginger. Toss with 4 cups bagged coleslaw mix.
70 calories, 2.5g fat (0g saturated), 0g fiber, 1g sugar, 0g protein
Rice is nice if you have a nut allergy. This alternative is typically made from brown rice and water, then fortified with a bunch of good stuff: vitamin A for eye health, phosphorus for strong bones and teeth, and B12 for metabolizing fat and protein.
"Rice milk is one of the most versatile plant-based beverages for cooking," Jardine says. "It can replace milk in any recipe." The thin consistency is ideal for souffles, frosting, pudding, and omelets; even the unsweetened version tastes slightly sweet (similar to skim milk). Adding hot rice milk to plain instant oatmeal provides a nutritional punch you can't get from water, plus you won't need as much brown sugar to sweeten it, Sass says. For a real treat, try this hot-cocoa recipe, which is lower in calories than a typical mug: Melt 2 dark chocolate squares in 2 tablespoons hot water (you'll get a richer flavor than if you use cocoa powder), then add 1 cup warm unsweetened rice milk, 1/4 teaspoon pure vanilla extract and a dash of ground cinnamon.
Note: Nutritional information throughout is for 1 cup.
Originally published in FITNESS magazine, May 2014.