Milk for the Elderly: A Dietitian’s Expert Recommendations

Milk for the elderly is the number one drink I recommend for its high protein, calcium and vitamin D content. It can help improve bone strength, reduce fracture risk, aid in wound healing, and prevent malnutrition.

But with so many milk products on the market it can be difficult to know which type of milk to choose. Here you can find a breakdown of the milk products on the market, the health benefits, and of course, which one a Dietitian would choose.

woman drinking from a straw milk, with three other glasses.

Top Health Benefits of Milk for the Elderly

Milk is a powerhouse of stored nutrients. It contains almost every essential nutrient that our body needs, as well as protein, fat, carbohydrates, and amino acids.

Here are some of the nutrients and health benefits that we get from drinking just one glass of cow’s milk:

Calcium – Keeps bones and teeth healthy and strong. Has a role in muscle function, nerve transmission, and hormone secretion.

Riboflavin – Antioxidant properties to prevent cell damage.

Phosphorous – Needed for growth, maintenance, and repair of all tissues and cells in the body.

Vitamins A, B12 – Improves vision, growth and reproduction, benefits brain function.

Potassium – Helps maintain normal cell fluid levels.

Magnesium – Supports muscle and nerve function, and energy production.

Zinc – Helps keep your immune system and metabolism functioning.

Iodine – Helps make the hormone Thyroxine, which helps with growth of bones and nerves.

Protein – Improves muscle strength, good for bones, helps maintain weight, maintain strength.

Fat – Helps to produce hormones in the body, also helps to increase absorption of vitamin D.

Carbohydrates – Helps with energy production in the body, used by the brain, muscles, cardiovascular system and more.

All of the nutrients that cow’s milk provides are absorbed at very high quantities, which means that you reap the benefits of providing essential nutrients in a small quantity.

Milk Health Benefits for Elderly

Elderly individuals are at an increased risk of Sarcopenia, bone loss, loss of muscle strength, malnutrition and pressure injuries.

Sarcopenia is age related muscle loss, though for some this may be as a result of a disease process, it can also be due to inadequate nutrition and declines in activity. Bone loss, loss of muscle strength, malnutrition and pressure injuries are largely preventable.

Milk helps to prevent, treat, or delay these health conditions by providing a high protein, calcium and vitamin D and adequate calorie content. Along with the other nutrients in milk, it can help to maintain bone strength, muscle mass, and prevent malnutrition.

Types of Milk

In today’s marketplace there are so many milk options available, yet there are very few that actually boast the health properties of cow’s milk.

There are two large categories of milk, animal based milks and plant based milks. Animal based milk products have more benefits in terms of the nutrients that we absorb from them. Whereas plant based milks may boast fortified ingredients such as calcium, vitamin d, vitamin a, etc., but we simply don’t absorb all the nutrients that they add in.

One study found that soy milk had less than 3% of the protein compared to cow’s milk, and plant based milks had less than 1% protein of cow’s milk.

The same study also found cow’s milk had more energy, protein, fat, carbohydrates, vitamins C, B2, B12, and A, biotin, pantothenic acid, calcium, phosphorous, and iodine than plant based alternatives.

In terms of quality of nutrition, comparing cow’s milk to soy and plant based milks, there is very little comparison to be made. Cow’s milk offers more nutrition and essential amino acids that are necessary for growth and health maintenance.

But it’s still worth taking a closer look at the two varieties.

Animal Based Milks

Common animal based milks available on the market are cow, goat and sheep milk. The most common and least expensive type of milk is cow’s milk. You may find some goat and sheep milk at your local grocer, but not every store carries these products.

cow in a field.

Taking a closer look at cow’s milk, the nutrition facts are: (based on 2%)

130 Calories
9 Grams Protein
13 Grams Carbohydrates
5.0 Grams Fat
300 Miligrams Calcium
2.5 Micrograms Vitamin D

Cow’s milk is rich in two types of protein, casein and whey. Casein helps to increase the absorption of calcium and phosphorus. While whey is rich in essential amino acids, which are the building blocks of protein in our body.

Cow’s milk is available in different fat percentages such as non-fat (skim), 1%, 2%, 3.25% and higher. Any of these types of milk will provide the health benefits to people who drink at least 1 cup per day.

Plant Based Milks

Common plant based milks available on the market almond, soy, and oat. These milks are made typically by soaking the plant in water (soaking almonds, oats, etc), and then pureeing the final mixture. They may or may not also filter it to remove thick particles.

Most plant based milk products are fortified with additional nutrients, especially when they do not naturally occur in the plant. This may include calcium, vitamin A, D, and more. The nutrition facts panel may look similar to a cow’s milk product, but the body’s ability to absorb these added ingredients will be lower.

In general, I do not recommend plant based milks for elderly people. The nutrition profile of plant based milks simply does not offer the same benefits as cow’s milk.

almonds dropping into almond milk.

Lactose Intolerant Milk Choices

Individuals with lactose intolerance frequently choose to avoid cow’s milk altogether, missing out on many of the essential nutrients provided by cow’s milk.

Signs of a lactose intolerance include:

Gas, bloating, diarrhea, vomiting and general discomfort.

This can happen within an hour of drinking milk or more delayed and a few hours later. Some will experience this with only cow’s milk, others with lactose intolerance will suffer from this from all dairy products.

Market products now include cow’s milk that is lactose free which benefits anyone who has a lactose intolerance. It contains all the health properties of cow’s milk, but with the lactose sugar removed. This option is available in almost every grocery store now.

What Milk is Best to Drink?

As a Registered Dietitian, I recommend that if people are able to drink cow’s milk, that they should choose it. With it’s rich nutrient profile, high absorption rates, and health promoting properties, it’s a winner of a choice.

Plant based milks offer little no nutritional value in terms of protein, calcium and vitamin D, and most nutrients are not as bioavailable as that in cow’s milk. If you are looking for an alternative to cow’s milk due to a lactose intolerance, I recommend cow’s milk that is lactose free.

How Much Milk Should a Senior Drink?

Seniors can reap the benefits of milk drinking as little as 1 cup per day. Milk can help to meet daily calcium and vitamin d recommendations, to reach the total recommendations though, you can add in cheese, milk, and cottage cheese.

Milk doesn’t have to be the only source of these nutrients, but it is among the best choice. Drinking 2-3 glasses is safe and recommended for most seniors, but they should check with their Doctor if there are any health concerns.

Is Milk Powder Healthy?

Milk powder is a great way to add more protein and calories to smoothies, soups, and jellos. Milk powder can also be used to make milk with water if someone doesn’t have access to fresh milk in their fridge.

Mixing 4 tablespoons with water can make a refreshing glass of milk!

Closing Thoughts

If an elderly individual can drink cow’s milk, I highly recommend having 1-3 cups per day. It can be taken with meals, or with snacks throughout the day. It offers high protein for increasing bone strength, weight gain, and preventing malnutrition. While the calcium and vitamin D help to maintain current bone strength and reduce falls risk.

Plant based milks simply do not line up with the nutrient profile that animal based milk products do. If a person wants a plant based milk due to flavour, that is a personal choice.

If you want more great health content check out the following articles:

Does Pom Juice Make You Poop?

Pureed Foods for Elderly: A Registered Dietitian’s Advice.

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Michelle Saari is a Registered Dietitian based in Canada. She has a Master's Degree in Human Nutritional Sciences and is a passionate advocate for spreading easy to understand, reliable, and trustworthy nutrition information. She is currently a full time online entrepreneur with two nutrition focused websites.

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