Due to a gradual shift in eating patterns, many Americans are no longer consuming the recommended amounts of dairy to meet their calcium and vitamin D needs. Learn why dairy has become a food group of concern—plus explore the best sources of dairy, the recommended intakes for every age, the top health benefits of dairy, and tips on adding more dairy to the diet.
Dairy in the Diet
Recently, trends have emerged that encourage the population to completely eliminate dairy from the diet. Diets such as Paleo, Vegan, and Whole 30 are popular examples of dairy-free diets, with claims of benefits ranging from improved digestion to weight loss.
However, since dairy products are the main contributors of calcium to the American diet,1 those with low intakes of dairy are at risk of insufficient calcium intakes. And according to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015-2020, calcium is a nutrient of public health concern for Americans.2 In fact, dairy contains three out of the five nutrients of public health concern—not just calcium but vitamin D and potassium, as well.
Understanding Milk Allergies and Lactose Intolerance
The only people who truly need to avoid dairy are those with a milk allergy. A milk allergy occurs when the immune system reacts to the proteins in cow’s milk. This reaction can cause a range of symptoms, including hives, nausea, vomiting, bloody stools, and even life-threatening anaphylactic shock.
Lactose intolerance, on the other hand, refers to an impaired ability to digest the sugar lactose that’s found in milk. This condition is associated with the body making an insufficient amount of the enzyme lactase, which is required for lactose digestion. Symptoms of lactose intolerance can include gas, bloating, nausea, diarrhea, and vomiting. However, those who are lactose intolerant can comfortably consume specially processed lactose-free milk, in addition to yogurt and hard cheeses
The Best Sources of Dairy
The Dietary Guidelines specifies that a healthy eating pattern should include fat-free or low-fat dairy (such as milk, yogurt, and cheese) and/or fortified soy beverages.3 Dairy is a nutrient-dense food group that provides not only the three nutrients of concern listed above but also vitamin A, magnesium, phosphorus, riboflavin, vitamin B12, niacin, and protein. Because dairy is so nutrient-dense, it can be difficult to replace with other foods if someone has chosen to eliminate dairy from their diet.
Recommended Amounts of Dairy
The recommended daily intakes of dairy are reported in cup equivalents, which is the nutrient equivalent to 1 cup of milk. The daily intake recommendations begin at 2 cup equivalents for two-year-olds and increase up to 3 cup equivalents for those ages nine and older, including adults.
Recommended Dairy Intakes for Different Age Groups
|Ages||Daily Recommended Dairy (in cup equivalents)4|
Note that 1 cup equivalent of dairy is equal to:
- 1 cup of milk or fortified soymilk
- 1 cup of yogurt
- 1 cup of frozen yogurt
- 1.5 cups of ice cream
- 2 cups of cottage cheese
- 1.5 oz of natural cheese
- 2 oz of processed cheese
For nutrition purposes, the dairy category does not include all dairy products. For example, since the calcium contents of cream, sour cream, and cream cheese are low, these products are excluded from the daily dairy recommendations.
Top Health Benefits of Dairy
Dairy is perhaps best known for its role in the building and maintenance of bones. Dairy intake is especially important for children and adolescents since bone mass is built during this period. In addition to improved bone health, dairy has been linked to lower blood pressure and reduced risks of cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes.
Tips on Adding Dairy to the Diet
There are a variety of ways to incorporate more dairy into the diet—for example:
- Have a glass of fat-free or low-fat milk with meals
- Add fat-free milk to oatmeal instead of water
- Make a yogurt dip for fruits and vegetables
- Use low-fat yogurt as a baked potato topping
- Add a slice of cheese to a sandwich
A Healthier Future with Dairy
Even though healthy eating is in, many Americans still struggle to get enough of all the essential nutrients. The good news is that dairy can play an important role in closing the nutrient gap for three of the five nutrients of public health concern. Download our Guide to Nutrients of Concern to learn more.
1. Institute of Medicine, Committee to Review Dietary Reference Intakes for Vitamin D and Calcium. (2010). Dietary Reference Intakes for Calcium and Vitamin D. 2, Overview of Calcium. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK56060/#ch2.s2
2. USDHHS and USDA. (2015). Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015-2020, 8th Ed. Ch. 2, Shifts Needed to Align with Healthy Eating Patterns. Retrieved from https://health.gov/dietaryguidelines/2015/guidelines/chapter-2/a-closer-look-at-current-intakes-and-recommended-shifts/
3. USDHHS and USDA. (2015). Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015-2020, 8th Ed. Ch. 1, Key Elements of Healthy Eating Patterns. Retrieved from https://health.gov/dietaryguidelines/2015/guidelines/chapter-1/key-recommendations/
4. USDA. (2019). All About the Dairy Group. Retrieved from https://www.choosemyplate.gov/dairy