Dairy foods can improve the nutritional quality of our diets and reduce risk for chronic diseases. But according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Americans consume only one-and-a-half servings of dairy foods daily.
Recommendations in the 2005 Food Guide Pyramid and Dietary Guidelines are three servings a day for adults and children (aged nine and older) and two to three servings daily for younger children (ages two to eight).
For the first time, the guidelines advise three cups a day of “fat-free or low-fat” milk or equivalent milk products.
One cup of milk equals one cup of yogurt, one-and-a-half ounces of natural cheese, or two ounces of processed cheese (e.g., American). Low-calcium foods like cream, butter, sour cream and cream cheese are excluded.
The guidelines also warn against avoiding milk and dairy products to prevent weight gain. Recent scientific research suggests dairy foods may play a role in weight loss (e.g., burning fat). Lactose-intolerant individuals (who can not digest milk sugar) are advised to consume yogurt, hard cheeses (e.g., Cheddar, Swiss) and lactose-reduced milk.
Health benefits: Dairy foods provide 72% of the calcium available in the U.S. food supply. Milk is also rich in high-quality protein, phosphorus, potassium, riboflavin and Vitamins A, B12 and D. Milk is fortified with Vitamin D, which increases calcium absorption, but yogurt and cheese may not contain Vitamin D.
Dairy foods also contain conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), sphingolipids and “probiotics” (“friendly’’ bacteria found in yogurt, acidophilus milk and cultured dairy drinks like kefir), which have potential health benefits. For example, probiotics can treat diarrhea and lactose-intolerance. But, long-term, controlled human studies are needed to prove other positive health effects like enhancing immunity.
Dairy foods are “functional” foods, since their health benefits go beyond their nutrients. These benefits may include improving or reducing risk of high blood pressure (the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) eating plan includes three servings of low-fat dairy foods daily), high blood cholesterol, heart disease, stroke, osteoporosis (bone loss leading to fractures in adults), obesity, cancer (e.g., colon, breast), insulin resistance (can lead to type 2 diabetes or heart disease), kidney stones, ulcers, inflammatory bowel diseases (IBD) and dental caries.
Dairy foods help children and teenagers build strong bones and teeth and achieve peak bone mass. Milk products can also help prevent bone fractures and rickets (Vitamin D deficiency leading to bone deformities) in children. Population studies have linked a high intake of calcium and dairy foods with lower body fat in children.
Choosing dairy: Check food labels for “low-fat” (no more than three grams of fat per serving) or “fat-free” (half-gram of fat or less per serving) and high calcium (at least 200 milligrams per serving). Reducing fat content won’t decrease other nutrients like calcium and protein.
In general, harder cheeses contain more calcium but also more saturated fat and calories. Choose low-fat cheeses with no more than five grams of total fat, three grams of saturated fat and 240 milligrams of sodium per ounce.
Choose low-fat or nonfat yogurt with “live and active cultures” (e.g., Lactobacilli, Bifidobacteria) known as probiotics. Some yogurts also contain “prebiotics” like inulin which provide food for probiotics. One manufacturer is adding plant sterols (to reduce high blood cholesterol) and Vitamin D. Select yogurt containing no more than 250 calories, 4 gm. of fat, 2 gm. of saturated fat, 28 gm. of sugar and at least 250 mg. of calcium per cup.
Menu tips: Here are some suggestions for adding low-fat dairy foods to your operation’s menus: