DGA Reveals: Dairy Is Essential to Healthy Eating Patterns
Dairy foods nourish life and help people thrive at every age. Three daily servings of low-fat or fat-free dairy foods – like milk, cheese and yogurt – have decades of research to back their essential role in a variety of healthy eating styles. Dairy foods are also a key component of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA), which set the foundation of our nation’s nutrition policies and programs. Meant for all Americans, the DGA offers evidenced-based guidance for flexible ways to build healthy plates with nutrient-rich foods.
Dairy Is a Crucial Part of the Top Healthy Eating Patterns
While many of us are eager to talk about specific nutrients and dietary goals, it’s time to expand the way we think about our diets. The 2015-2020 DGA promotes three different healthy eating patterns for healthy living. Each of the three is built on science, is adaptable to cultural and personal preferences, and encourages lifelong healthy habits. They all emphasize balance, moderation and variety.
Dairy foods are essential to all three eating patterns because they provide key nutrients that aren’t as available through other foods. Here are the current recommendations for dairy within the three healthy eating patterns:
- Healthy U.S.-Style Eating Pattern and Healthy Vegetarian Eating Pattern
- 3 daily servings for those 9 years and older
- 2 ½ daily servings for children 4-8 years
- 2 daily servings for children 2-3 years
- Healthy Mediterranean-Style Eating Pattern
- 2 daily servings
One thing to note about the DGA’s Mediterranean-Style Eating Pattern: it’s the only one of the three patterns where some groups, such as adolescents and elderly women, don’t meet daily recommendations for calcium and vitamin D. An additional serving of dairy could be a simple solution.
In fact, a recent study shows that supplementing a Mediterranean-style diet with an additional serving of dairy leads to the same health benefits of a traditional Mediterranean-style diet, all while meeting calcium recommendations.
This is a great example of the flexibility we have within the DGA’s healthy eating patterns. If your eating style mirrors the Healthy Mediterranean-Style Eating Pattern, you might choose to add another glass of low-fat or fat-free milk to get the nutrients you need (like high-quality protein, calcium, vitamin D and more) for relatively few additional calories.
Dairy Helps Prevent Chronic Disease
The DGA emphasizes these healthy eating patterns along with physical activity because a large body of evidence shows that both habits can help people achieve health goals and reduce their risk of chronic disease. Considering that more than half of Americans have at least one of these preventable diseases, better nutrition can tremendously impact public health.
Dairy as part of a healthy eating pattern offers many health benefits. Let’s take a closer look at how dairy does the body good:
- Cardiovascular Disease (CVD)
- Overall dairy consumption (including cheese and yogurt) isn’t associated with higher risk for CVD. Better yet, cheese in the diet is linked to a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease.
- Additionally, a growing body of evidence finds that saturated fat, and specifically full-fat dairy, isn’t the culprit of heart disease it was once thought to be.
- Type 2 Diabetes
- The majority of meta-analyses find an inverse relationship between eating dairy and risk of developing Type 2 diabetes across a range of populations.
- Although the potential mechanisms are not entirely clear, dairy’s role in prevention seems to be due to its calcium, vitamin D, fatty acids and proteins, as well as its probiotic effects on the gut microbiome.
- Bone Health
- Calcium, vitamin D, phosphorus and protein are significant nutrients that support bone health. Milk is the main food source of these nutrients for children and is therefore recommended not only by the Dietary Guidelines for Americans but also by the American Academy of Pediatrics.
- Meeting dairy recommendations is especially important in childhood, as healthy bones early in life are associated with a reduced risk for osteoporosis later in life.
- Enjoying dairy as part of a nutrient-rich diet is shown to help maintain a healthy weight. Even full-fat dairy has been linked to favorable weight outcomes.
- High-quality protein is among the essential nutrients found in dairy foods that is associated with weight management – known for increasing satiety (the feeling of fullness) and building lean body mass.
Dairy Helps Fill Nutrient Gaps
All five food groups are important, but Americans are missing the mark on four of them. The DGA recommends Americans eat more vegetables, fruits and dairy as well as whole grains to increase their intake of calcium, potassium, dietary fiber and vitamin D, identified as nutrients of public health concern.
An additional serving of dairy per day could help many meet their nutrient needs, and most individuals in the U.S. would benefit by increasing their intake in fat-free or low-fat forms. Recommending one more serving of dairy is a simple and effective way for health professionals to improve the diets of our clients – thanks to its wide variety of product types and great taste. When working with patients, clients and consumers, consider sharing:
- Milk is the number one food source of nine essential nutrients in the diets of American children and six essential nutrients for adults.
- Cheese contributes high-quality protein, as well as calcium, phosphorus and vitamin A. It also may help children eat more fruits, vegetables and whole grains.
- Yogurt is a lactose-intolerance friendly food that can benefit your heart, your waistline and your gut.
When it comes to the DGA, we all play a role in supporting healthy eating patterns and empowering people to explore how those patterns fit their lives. I encourage you to share the many health benefits of dairy and ideas on how to incorporate dairy in a healthy diet, including some of our delicious dairy-forward recipes.
Interested in the science? Stay up to date on our latest research.