milk being poured into glass

Discover the Benefits of Dairy

Do you dream of dairy or do you keep your distance from it? There is a lot to love about it and a lot to know, too. You can learn more about making dairy products or alternative sources of calcium a part of a heathy, balanced diet.

Recent Trends in Dairy Consumption

Since the 1970s, U.S. milk consumption among children has stayed steady, but among teenagers and adults, it has slowly declined while cheese, butter and yogurt consumption has risen. Competition from other beverages, especially carbonated soft drinks, fruit juices and bottled water, is likely contributing to the changes in milk consumption. In addition, substitutes for cow’s milk including nut milks, coconut milk, soy milk and oat milk, have provided alternatives for consumers.

woman adding milk to smoothieIs Dairy Health Promoting?

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) says that dairy products provide important health benefits, especially building and maintaining strong bones. The USDA’s My Plate nutrition guideline’s dairy group includes milk, yogurt, cheese, lactose-free milk and fortified soy milk. It does not include foods made from milk that have little calcium and a high fat content, such as cream cheese, sour cream, cream and butter.

Foods in the dairy group provide nutrients that are vital for health and maintenance of your body, like calcium, potassium, vitamin D and protein. Dairy group products help improve bone health, something especially important for children and adolescents when bone mass is developing. Without enough calcium and vitamin D, a person may be at risk of osteoporosis, a condition that weakens bones and makes them prone to breaking.

Other Sources of Calcium

Some people have difficulty digesting lactose, a natural sugar found in dairy. Lactose-free milk is available at most grocery stores, or as an alternative to dairy, plant-based milks are widely available. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services educates consumers about the importance of calcium and recommends average daily amounts based on a person’s age. For those who can’t consume dairy products or chose not to, non-dairy sources of calcium include:

  • Kale, broccoli and Chinese cabbage are fine vegetable sources of calcium.
  • Fish with soft bones that you eat, such as canned sardines and salmon, are fine animal sources of calcium.
  • Most grains, such as breads, pastas and unfortified cereals, while not rich in calcium, add significant amounts of calcium to the diet because people eat them often or in large amounts.
  • Calcium is added to some breakfast cereals, fruit juices, soy and rice beverages, and tofu.

Beware of Added Sugar, Saturated Fat and Cholesterol

A healthy, balanced diet most often includes dairy in amounts and varieties that are right for you.

Some dairy products contain added sugar. For example, a single-portion container of yogurt might contain 20 grams or more of added sugar. The American Heart Association recommends men should consume no more than 9 teaspoons (36 grams) of added sugar per day, and for women, the number is lower: 6 teaspoons (25 grams) per day. Don’t let the sugar content of dairy products cancel out the healthy benefits. For better health, read product nutrition labels and ingredients and choose dairy products without added sugar.

Whole-fat dairy products contain a high amount of saturated fat and cholesterol. If you are concerned about your saturated fat and cholesterol consumption and want to maintain a healthy weight and a healthy heart, choose nonfat or low-fat dairy options, like 1% milk, skim milk, nonfat yogurt, etc.

Find Out What Works for You

These days, consumers are empowered to do their own research, question product claims and self-test how a particular food affects them. If you are bothered by a health issue and suspect it might be caused by your diet, an elimination diet can identify food intolerances, sensitivities and allergies. An elimination diet is an eating plan where foods from your diet that you suspect your body can’t tolerate well are removed. The foods are later reintroduced, one at a time, while you look for symptoms that show a reaction. Ask your health care provider to recommend a nutritionist or other specialist who could guide you through this process.

A healthy, balanced diet most often includes dairy in amounts and varieties that are right for you. Making good food choices may slow the aging process, promote good health, improve mood and reduce pain or disease. The Department of Veterans Affairs Whole Health program’s resources will help you learn more about healthy food choices. Whole Health is an approach to health care that empowers and enables YOU to take charge of your health and well-being and live your life to the fullest.

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