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Is there evidence on the effects of plant-based milk and the gut?
When it comes to the effects of plant-based diets on chronic conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, obesity, auto-immune and inflammatory diseases, the scientific evidence is strongly suggestive of its positive outcomes (1).
In turn, the beneficial effects of plant-based diets and gut health is becoming well known. So, is there evidence on the effects of plant-based milk and the gut? In short, there is a need for more information, but there is enough to suggest that there may be some benefits.
The gut is central to many physiological functions, and the health of the gut is determined by how well the gut flora flourishes. The balance of the gut microbiota (bacteria and other micro-organisms) have been shown to have both positive and negative effects on health. Namely, dysbiosis, i.e. an imbalance of the bacteria favoring the bad bacteria can have adverse effects on health, whereas the opposite, whereby there is good promotion of healthy bacteria within the gut can have good outcomes on health (2).
Let's talk about milk
Let’s discuss milk. A study looking at the nutritional differences amongst various plant-based milks and cow’s milk found that soy and almond milk are good nutritional alternatives with soy milk showing superior nutritional value (higher levels of calcium, magnesium, iron, proteins and unsaturated fats) when compared to that of bovine (3). The role of these micro-nutrients in maintaining gut health is well reported (4).
When it comes to gut health though, it seems that the effects of lactobacillus from fermented dairy products gets more of the spotlight (5), but there is plenty of evidence suggesting the effect of other probiotics on the gut flora (6). Although the evidence is limited, there are some glimmers of early data to show the promise that plant-based milk provides for the gut.
A study of both lean and obese adults, for example, found that the consumption of soy milk has favourable reduction in the Firmicutes: Bacteroidetes ratio (directly correlated with obesity) compared to cow’s milk (7).
This has also been shown in children, where in a small study dairy intake was positively associated with the Firmicutes:Bacteroidetes ratio (as seen with adults in the study above), but negatively associated with microbiota quality and diversity, suggesting a reduction in microbiota variety.
Conversely, milk alternatives (soy and rice milk) and soy products accounted for six and seven percent of the variance in microbiota composition respectively, suggesting a positive correlation in gut flora diversity (8).
Worryingly, it has been reported that early introduction of cow's milk-based infant formula might be a major environmental factor in the development of immune-mediated (Type 1) diabetes in humans where the gut is thought to play a central role.
So, although the scientific jury may yet be out on which way to sway in regards plant-based milk there is early and supportive evidence to show that it carries the same, if not better, nutritional value and can support gut health just as well as cow’s milk. Verdict for now: plant-based milk has weight and a strong future backed by more scientific evidence.
- Rasnik K. Singh et al., Influence of diet on the gut microbiome and implications for human health. J Transl Med. 2017; 15: 73.
- Y-J Zhang et al., Impacts of Gut Bacteria on Human Health and Diseases. Int J Mol Sci. 2015 Apr; 16(4): 7493–7519.
- Sai Kranthi Vanga and Vijaya Raghavan. How well do plant based alternatives fare nutritionally compared to cow’s milk? J Food Sci Technol. 2018 Jan; 55(1): 10–20.
- Erin K. Crowley et al., Dietary Supplementation with a Magnesium-Rich Marine Mineral Blend Enhances the Diversity of Gastrointestinal Microbiota. Mar Drugs. 2018 Jun; 16(6): 216.
- Noemí Redondo-Useros et al., Associations of Probiotic Fermented Milk (PFM) and Yogurt Consumption with Bifidobacterium and Lactobacillus Components of the Gut Microbiota in Healthy Adults. Nutrients. 2019 Mar; 11(3): 651.
- Md. Abul Kalam Azad et al., Probiotic Species in the Modulation of Gut Microbiota: An Overview. Biomed Res Int. 2018; 2018: 9478630.
- Dina Fernandez-Raudales et al., Consumption of different soymilk formulations differentially affects the gut microbiomes of overweight and obese men. Gut Microbes. 2012 Nov 1; 3(6): 490–500.
- P. Smith-Brown et al., Dairy and plant based food intakes are associated with altered faecal microbiota in 2 to 3 year old Australian children. Sci Rep. 2016; 6: 32385.
- H Kolb and P Pozzilli. Cow's milk and type I diabetes: the gut immune system deserves attention. Immunol Today. 1999 Mar;20(3):108-10.
Dr. Sunni is a clinician-scientist, business director and trained fitness instructor with anMBA facing Chrone’s disease on a daily basis.
He has launched an Instagram and website platform called dishdashdeets which focuses on the ‘art of being gut healthy’ through the creativity of plant-based dishes as well as the education, awareness and championing of issues around IBD and IBS.