With eating plans that have a lot of rules—keto, we’re looking at you—come a lot of questions. One top one for beginners: Is milk keto? Because honestly, not everyone can get on board with the whole “butter coffee” thing.
Let’s back up for a sec. On the high-fat, very low-carb plan, most people stick to getting 70 to 80 percent of their calories from fat and just 20 to 30 grams of net carbs per day, although those numbers can be a bit variable depending on the person and what version of keto they’re on. (Ketotarian, for example, is a bit more generous with the carb count.) Counting “net carbs” versus total carbs gives you more leeway with said carbs. You get this figure by taking total carbs and subtracting from it fiber grams and sugar alcohols.
Got all that? Great. Now let’s talk to an expert to see if you can be all “Got Milk?” on the ketogenic diet.
Can I have cow’s milk on keto?
I hate to break it to you, but dairy milk is not going to be keto-compliant, says Amy Kubal, RDN, a registered dietitian in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. It’s natural to think it might be, especially if you go for the full-fat stuff. However, milk contains lactose, a milk sugar, which contains…carbohydrates. It also has no fiber to offset the carbs. So, you’re looking at 12 grams of net carbs per cup for whole milk. Even a quarter cup, with three grams of net carbs in that tiny amount, could easily eat up too much of your carb budget for little payoff. Remember, if you’re only supposed to get 30 grams of carbs per day, that quarter cup of milk makes up 10 percent of your daily budget. Womp, womp.
Okay, well then what about non-dairy milk?
Two best choices, says Kubal: Almond and coconut milk. First step is choosing one without added sugar, so look for those labeled “unsweetened.” One cup of unsweetened almond milk has 1.4 grams of net carbs. It has little else in the way of nutrition, however, considering it’s mostly water. You’ll also get only 1.4 grams of protein and 2.7 grams of fat. Depending on the brand, unsweetened coconut milk (the kind that comes in a carton) has 1 gram of net carbs per cup, no protein, and 4.5 grams of fat.
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Just don’t make a rookie mistake and use canned coconut milk as your coffee stir-in of choice. Just a quarter cup of regular (full-fat) canned coconut milk rings in at 2 grams of net carbs, 12 grams of fat, and less than a gram of protein. Do the math: that’s 8 grams of net carbs in a cup. For the amount you’d eat in a beef red curry or butter chicken, that’s NBD. But regularly drinking it adds up just like regular milk, and the sheer amount of fat it contains could cause digestive distress, adds Kubal.
Are there non-dairy milks to avoid on keto?
Milks that are made with traditional carb-rich foods, like rice or oat milk, are no-gos. “With these, you’re better off having dairy milk,” says Kubal. Case in point: One cup of rice milk has 21 grams of net carbs; a cup of oat milk has 14 grams of net carbs.
Soy milk falls into a gray area. One cup has just 1 gram of net carbs, and it has comparable protein and fat content to cow’s milk. However, many keto followers choose not to incorporate soy into their diet because of concerns over its phytoestrogen content, says Kubal. “If you’re going to use a little bit for your coffee, I have no problem with it, but drinking glasses of it a day is probably not a good idea,” she says. (It should be noted that other experts say that soy milk is generally safe to drink, and likely will not affect the hormones of healthy adults.)
Should I even bother with alt-milks on a keto diet?
It’s not a must, Kubal says. “There’s not a lot of nutritional benefit to these milks at all,” says Kubal. “Alternative, non-dairy milks have a place, but look for food with more nutritional value. It will always be better than watered down almonds or coconuts,” she says. Milks, whether it’s dairy or non-dairy, still have carbs, and she recommends maximizing your carb quota by putting it toward food like veggies. “Nutrients should always come before macros,” she says. But if you just can’t drink coffee (or eat your keto cereal) in the morning without it, pour away.
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