Dairy products include milk and products made from milk. Most of them are excellent sources of calcium and protein. In fact, because dairy is so high in calcium it’s given its own food group on the USDA ChooseMyPlate website.
What Counts as a Dairy Product?
Milk, cream, hard, and soft cheese are all classified as dairy. Butter comes from milk too, but since it’s all fat with no calcium, it doesn’t technically count as a dairy product. In the U.S., the vast majority of dairy products are made from cow milk. But you can also find goat milk and cheese as well as cheese made from sheep milk.
Dairy products made from milk include yogurt, pudding, ice cream, frozen yogurt, and flavored milk beverages. They’re all good sources of calcium, but they may also be high in fat and sugar, so it’s important to count the calories and keep portion sizes in check.
Are There Alternatives to Dairy Products?
Some people are allergic to milk or can’t digest lactose (milk sugar) properly so they can’t consume dairy products. Also, people who follow vegan diets don’t consume any dairy products since they come from cows.
Alternatives to traditional dairy products include soy milk and soy ‘cheese.’ You can also consume nut milks, such as almond and cashew milk, or rice milk. Dairy alternatives don’t necessarily have the same nutritional profile as milk and other dairy products, but they’re often fortified with calcium and vitamin D.
Nutrients Found in Dairy Products
Of course, dairy products are high in calcium. That’s what makes them famous. But, they’re also high in protein and potassium, plus milk is usually fortified with vitamin D and sometimes vitamin A.
Milk products may be high in fat, including saturated fats, but you can often choose low-fat and not-fat versions of your favorite dairy foods. And, of course, dairy products like ice cream, flavored milk, and flavored yogurt can be high in added sugar.
If you don’t consume dairy products, you can still get plenty of calcium from other sources like dark leafy green vegetables such as kale, bok choy and broccoli, canned fish (with bones), soybeans, or the dairy substitutes mentioned earlier. You may need extra vitamin D because none of those foods are good sources of vitamin D. In fact, very few foods contain vitamin D, but you talk to your healthcare professional about taking additional supplements if you aren’t getting enough exposure to sunlight every day.
If you’re looking for more protein, you’ll find plenty of meat, poultry, fish, legumes, nuts and seeds. And other potassium sources include all the fruits and veggies.
Health Benefits of Dairy Products
Calcium is essential for building and maintaining bones and intake of dairy products is associated with bone health and may help to reduce your risk for osteoporosis, which is a weakening of bone tissue. Calcium is also necessary for healthy muscle and nerve function and blood clotting.
You’ll see that most dairy products and many dairy alternatives are fortified with vitamin D. That’s because your body needs vitamin D to absorb calcium properly. And while you don’t need to consume vitamin D at the same time as calcium-rich foods, it just seems like a good match.
People who consume more milk and other dairy products also tend to have reduced risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and high blood pressure. A diet high in milk and dairy products is also associated with being at a healthier weight, especially in kids.
Recommended Servings of Dairy Per Day
The daily recommendation for dairy products is based on age and calcium need. Children from ages two to three years need two cups of milk per day while children from four to eight years old need about two and a half cups of milk per day. Everyone over the age of eight years should consume at least three cups of milk every day.
Not all dairy products are equal, of course. There’s a big difference in nutritional value in a cup of milk compare to a cup of cheese or ice cream so the USDA translates dairy product serving sizes into ‘cup equivalents.’ Each cup equivalent counts toward your daily dairy product recommendation, but note the calories can vary greatly:
- 8 ounces of yogurt
- 1 1/2 ounces of hard cheese
- 2 slices of hard cheese
- 1/3 cup shredded cheese
- 2 ounces of processed cheese, such as American cheese
- 2 cups cottage cheese
- 1 cup frozen yogurt
- 1 1/2 cup ice cream
- 1 cup soymilk
Incorporating Dairy into Your Diet
It’s easy to incorporate dairy products into your day. Try some of these tips:
- Drink milk with a meal
- Add milk to cereal at breakfast
- Sprinkle shredded cheddar cheese on your salad or vegetable side dish
- Eat yogurt as a snack with fresh berries, chopped nuts and a little honey
- Grate parmesan cheese on top of popcorn
- Add a slice of cheese to a sandwich
- Serve cheese with fresh fruit as an appetizer
- Top leafy greens with cottage cheese and tomato wedges
You can also make healthy dishes and meals that use dairy products as ingredients. Here are some of our favorites:
- How to Make the World’s Best Guilt-Free Grilled Cheese Sandwich
- Healthy Mac & Cheese in a Slow Cooker
- Healthy Snacks for Cheese Lovers
- Easy Ways to Make Greek Yogurt at Home
- Tzatziki with Mint – Cucumber Yogurt Sauce