Sharon Gerdes
Sharon Gerdes is a Certified Food Scientist and author who writes extensively about dairy’s role in health and wellness. Learn more at

The 2022 Olympics wrapped up in February. April brings the start of Major League Baseball. 

World-class athletes, youth players of all sports, and senior warriors all have one thing in common — it’s easier for them to achieve their fitness goals when dairy is on the training table. While plant-based dairy alternatives are trendy, they don’t offer the same nutrition as real milk or the power of dairy protein supplements. 

Milk: the original sports drink

Nine out of 10 U.S. Olympians and Paralympians grew up drinking milk, according to a 2016 survey performed for the Milk Processor Education Program. Several noted Olympians — including Simone Biles (gymnast and spokesperson for CorePower) and Eileen Gu (freestyle skier and spokesperson for Mengniu dairy) — endorse dairy. 

Drinking milk regularly during the growing years — all the way through late teens/early 20s — is associated with greater height in the teen years, and greater bone size and bone mineralization. Specifically, dairy milk provides 13 essential nutrients in each 8-ounce glass (protein, calcium, vitamin D, vitamin A, phosphorus, vitamin B 12, riboflavin, pantothenic acid, niacin, zinc, iodine, selenium and potassium). A glass of “original” oat “milk” has only five vitamins/minerals (calcium, vitamin D, vitamin A, riboflavin and iron). In addition, dairy milk has about twice the protein of oat “milk.”

Supplement with dairy protein

Shohei Ohtani, a baseball player nicknamed Sho-Time, was named the American League’s Most Valuable Player for 2021. Japanese-born Ohtani is unique in that he excels as a hitter, base runner, and pitcher. He is a spokesperson for Savas whey protein supplement. 

In a recent interview, Ohtani was asked, “Why do you use protein?” He responded, “I always do training both in-season and in the off-season. So considering the amount of training done, protein is an essential ingredient for muscles. So for my muscles, I usually take protein within 30 minutes of training … It [Savas] tastes delicious; it works well as a snack; and it is convenient to drink.”

Sports nutritionist Leslie Bonci, MPH, CSSD, RDN, provides suggestions for athletes who prefer whole food nutrition.

“To help maximize muscle protein synthesis, it can be helpful to know how to ‘bookend’ workouts with protein consumption before and after,” she says. “A guideline for athletes to follow would be 20 grams of protein plus 35 grams of carbohydrate 30 to 60 minutes before lifting (e.g., 8 ounces Greek yogurt and a small banana) and 20 grams of protein plus 35 grams of carbohydrate within 15 to 30 minutes after lifting (e.g., three slices of turkey or ham, one slice of cheese, one English muffin, and one apple).”

Cheese, though not often top of mind for sports nutrition, is highlighted in a new paper from authors at Maastricht University (“Cheese Ingestion Increases Muscle Protein Synthesis Rates Both at Rest and During Recovery from Exercise in Healthy Young Males: A Randomized Parallel-Group Trial”).

Dairy and other animal proteins are complete proteins, whereas most plant proteins, with the exception of soy, are incomplete proteins. A 2019 review (“The Role of the Anabolic Properties of Plant- Versus Animal-Based Protein Sources in Supporting Muscle Mass Maintenance: A Critical Review”) notes, “Plant-based proteins have less of an anabolic effect than animal proteins due to their lower digestibility, lower essential amino acid content (especially leucine) and deficiency in other essential amino acids such as sulfur amino acids or lysine. Thus, plant amino acids are directed toward oxidation rather than used for muscle protein synthesis.”

The paper mentions several strategies for improving the anabolic properties of plant protein. One strategy, blending plant and animal-based sources, can be easier for athletes than attempting to find an appropriate blend of plant proteins. Because of reduced absorption, individuals may need to eat 20% to 50% more plant proteins to absorb the equivalent amount of amino acids they would from animal sources.

Aging is associated with reduced appetite and a blunted ability to synthesize and retain muscle. Plant sources of protein tend to be higher in both carbohydrates and calories, so it may be difficult for older individuals to consume adequate protein solely from plant sources. 

When compared to plant sources, animal sources of protein also are higher in vitamin B12, vitamin D, omega fatty acid DHA, heme-iron, zinc, and vitamin K2. 

Each sport is unique, but a diet that includes animal protein may be more advantageous in sports where lean mass and strength are required. A winning strategy for athletes is to be plant-inclusive, but not plant-exclusive.

Sharon Gerdes is a Certified Food Scientist and author who writes extensively about dairy’s role in health and wellness. Learn more at