As much as we love our cheese, our ice cream, and our cream in our coffee, we know we shouldn’t overdo it. Dairy products, at least the full-fat variety of whole milk dairy products, have long been associated with heart disease and other health problems. But research-based evidence for this link has been inconsistent, and recent studies support the idea that certain types of dairy may not be the enemy after all.
Today, the nutritional reputation of dairy is as clear as a glass of milk, as Matthew Solan writes in the Harvard Health Blog entitled Dairy: Health food or health risk?
Nutritional Value of Dairy
Dairy products like milk, yogurt, cheese, and cottage cheese, are good sources of calcium, which helps build bones, maintains bone density, and reduces the risk of fractures. Adults up to age 50 need 1,000 milligrams (mg) of calcium per day. Women older than 50 and men older than 70 need 1,200 mg. For comparison, a cup of milk has 250 mg to 350 mg of calcium, depending on the brand and whether it’s whole, low-fat, or nonfat. A typical serving of yogurt has about 187 mg of calcium. Milk is also fortified with vitamin D, which bones need to maintain bone mass.
Calcium and vitamin D are important nutrients at any age. As MyPlate writes, intake of dairy products that contain these nutrients help to:
- Improve bone health especially in children and adolescents, when bone mass is being built.
- Promote bone health and prevent the onset of osteoporosis in adults, most of whom do not get enough of these nutrients.
Older adults also need protein to protect against sarcopenia, the natural age-related loss of muscle mass and strength, and dairy can be a decent source. The recommended amount for older adults is 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight. A 180-pound man would need about 65 grams of protein per day, and a 140-pound woman would need about 50 grams.
Recent studies suggest that consuming three servings of dairy a day lowers rates of cardiovascular disease and early death when compared to those with lower levels of consumption. Daily recommendations for dairy serving size are below. Be aware that these are estimates, and you can calculate your daily serving suggestion at MyPlate.com.
Sources of Dairy
Equivalents of one cup of dairy:
These equivalents for one cup of dairy are great options for cooking with low-fat dairy. Learning how to cook with low-fat dairy is a great place to start if you are interested in decreasing your saturated fat intake through dairy. Alternatively, you can choose almond and soymilk substitutes — but be aware that they have lower amounts of protein than regular milk.
The Bottom Line
When it comes to overall health benefits, dairy lands somewhere in the middle of being good for you and bad for you. The best way to keep dairy on the side of the hero is to limit your saturated fat intake when consuming dairy products by choosing 2% milk, which is low fat milk. If you’re feeling eager, fat-free skim milk is the way to go for the most nutritional benefit.
Adding some dairy to your daily diet — a splash of milk in your coffee or a cup poured over your breakfast cereal, or a slice of cheese on a sandwich — can help you get some of the vital nutrients you need. Just remember, you need to have variety in your diet to ensure you are consuming the appropriate nutrients. Check out our heart-healthy shopping list and discover your appropriate servings at MyPlate.com.