Dare to Dairy: Here’s Why This Food Group Can Make You Healthier

A large new review found the benefits of dairy are plentiful, lowering the risk of chronic diseases from diabetes to cancer. But how much do you really need, and which products are best?

Editor

Milk and dairy have been much maligned in recent years, with numerous popular diets and food trends encouraging people to drink and eat less and less of it. But a large new review of studies found that getting enough dairy throughout life can help prevent multiple chronic diseases, including heart disease, colon and bladder cancers, and even diabetes.

In the review, researchers looked at 14 different American, European, and Spanish studies that examined the effects of dairy on the prevention of chronic diseases. Based on their analysis published in Advances in Nutrition, here are the biggest findings about the positive impact dairy—specifically low-fat products—has on the risk for chronic diseases:

  • Drinking a moderate amount of milk during pregnancy is linked to better birth weight, length, and bone-mineral content during childhood.
  • Daily milk and dairy intake in elderly people may lower the risk of frailty and sarcopenia (muscle loss due to aging). Specifically, they found that eating high amounts of low-fat milk and yogurt and adding in nutrient-rich dairy proteins like that found in ricotta cheese are beneficial protective against these conditions too.
  • Dairy consumption is associated with a lower risk of coronary heart disease, including heart attack.
  • Eating dairy products, especially low-fat dairy and yogurt, may be linked to a reduced risk of type 2 diabetes.
  • Moderate consumption of milk and dairy products is associated with a lower risk of colorectal cancer and bladder cancer.
  • Eating milk and dairy was not shown to have an inflammatory effect in people who are overweight or obese.

How to Dairy Up Your Diet

Dairy products like milk, cheeses, yogurt, are a key part of a healthy diet—they offer a ton of benefits, including bone-building calcium, potassium, vitamin D, and protein. And yet, [consumption of dairy is way down in the United States](https://www.dairyherd.com/sites/default/files/inline-files/DFA-2018 Financial Release-FINAL.pdf), in part because of the growing popularity of plant-based alternatives like nut and oat milks.

And while a plant-based diet is good for you, it's important to keep in mind that plant-based doesn’t mean no dairy. And the right amount and types of dairy are good for you, according to this review. So how much do you need to drink or eat to reap the benefits? Well, that depends on your age, according the United States Department of Agriculture’s website MyPlate. Kids ages 2 to 3 should get 2 cups of milk or other dairy a day, while kids ages 4 to 8 should get 2 ½ cups a day. For everyone 9 and up, 3 cups a day is the recommendation.

Wondering what exactly counts as a cup for non-liquids? Here’s a quick cheat sheet for some common foods:

  • Yogurt: 8 ounces (note that it’s common for yogurt to be sold in 6-ounce containers, which equate to ¾ cup)
  • Hard cheese: 1 ½ ounces of hard cheese
  • Shredded cheese: 1/3 cup
  • Processed cheese (like American): 2 ounces
  • Ricotta cheese: ½ cup
  • Cottage cheese: 2 cups

All that said, some dairy products are better for you than others. Go for low-fat or fat-free dairy options whenever possible, recommends MyPlate—the study found these options to be most beneficial to health. That means choosing products that are “reduced fat” (2%), “low fat” (1%), and fat-free. Here are some tips to add dairy to your diet in a healthy way:

  • Buy low-fat or fat-free milk, or calcium-fortified soymilk. Use these milks in your daily latte or cappuccino orders, too!
  • Have low-fat yogurt as a snack with fruit or add it to smoothies or even a baked potato.
  • Use low-fat or reduced-fat shredded cheese to top casseroles and soups.
  • Use fat-free or low-fat milk instead of water in your oatmeal or hot cereal.
  • Try yogurt-based fruit and veggie dips.

What if you’re lactose intolerant or choose to avoid dairy for other reasons? If you’re lactose intolerant, load up on lactose-free dairy options, like cheeses, yogurt, or lactose-free milk. You can also take the lactase enzyme (one brand is Lactaid) with lactose-containing meals. For vegans and those choosing to avoid dairy for other reasons, it’s important to get your calcium from other sources, like calcium-fortified soy milk, chia seeds, almonds, and dark leafy greens.

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