MyPlate Mondays: Dairy

What is a dairy product? Dairy products are made with milk and retain high calcium levels

How much do I need? Adults need 3 cups daily

Remember: Make it fat-free or low-fat

(Use this chart to determine what a cup is.)

The last of the major food groups is dairy, of which you need at least three cups daily. The biggest benefit of dairy products is calcium. Products such as cream cheese and butter are not considered dairy products because they have little to no calcium. But milk substitutes (such as soymilk) that are fortified with calcium do count as dairy products.

dairy milk

When choosing dairy products to include in your diet, remember to choose non-fat or fat-free options. Otherwise, the health benefits to be gained from calcium can be outweighed by the negative effects of consuming too much cholesterol or saturated fats, which can raise the levels of LDL (“bad cholesterol”) in your body. Whole milk and many cheeses contain high levels of saturated fat, so limit your servings of these foods and try to switch to 2% or skim milk.

If you avoid milk due to lactose-intolerance, fear not! In addition to non-dairy alternatives like soymilk and almond milk, you may also find that you can eat cheese and yogurt with no negative effects. Because of the way cheese and yogurt are processed, they often contain little to no lactose. Taking over-the-counter lactase pills can also help you consume dairy products without discomfort or illness.

As most people know, the biggest benefit of dairy products comes from calcium which can increase your bone health and reduce the risk of osteoporosis. Calcium is especially important for children and adolescents as their bones form and grow. (If you avoid dairy products due to ethical or other reasons, make sure to get enough calcium from other sources such as fortified juices, breads, and cereals, as well as soy products and some leafy greens.)

Milk and soymilk are often fortified with vitamin D as well as calcium. Vitamin D contributes to bone health by allowing the body to absorb calcium. (Sunlight can also help your body produce vitamin D naturally.) If you don’t have vitamin-D fortified milk, try to select cereals supplemented with vitamin D in order to eat along with calcium. Calcium and vitamin D can also prevent fractures and increase bone mass.

Consuming dairy products can have a variety of other health benefits beyond strong bones. In people with at high risk of developing type 2 diabetes, taking vitamin D and calcium may help prevent diabetes from forming. Many dairy products also provide high levels of potassium, which can help regulate blood pressure. In addition, milk, yogurt, and soymilk also contain protein, which can count towards your daily protein intake (20% of your plate). Studies have also found that higher intake of milk and calcium can reduce the risk of colon cancer and breast cancer in premenopausal women. Studies have even shown that increased intake of dairy products (and to a lesser extent, calcium) can increase the rate of weight loss in an energy-restricted diet.

Tips on staying healthy with dairy:

  • include a glass of milk or soymilk as a beverage at each meal
  • use milk instead of water for oatmeal and other hot cereals
  • have fat-free yogurt as a snack
  • include a cup of yogurt in your smoothies
  • sprinkle entrees with low-fat cheese
  • top frozen yogurt with fruit for dessert