As a nutrition scientist, I’ve studied a number of different foods groups over the years: vegetables, whole grains, meat and now dairy. Each of these foods provides a valuable contribution to a balanced diet. Vegetables provide a variety of vitamins and minerals, whole grains deliver fiber and B-vitamins, and meat is a source of iron and protein.
Dairy foods (i.e., milk, cheese and yogurt) are an important part of this balance for myself and my family. My children have always had two options for beverages at dinner: milk or water. Ninety percent of the time, they choose milk. Our fridge is stocked with Greek yogurt, and cheese sticks are a favorite snack. For us, dairy foods are a staple. Although I spend a great deal of time thinking and learning about food and nutrition, I was still surprised to learn that a large proportion of Americans are not meeting the recommended amount of the dairy food group. These foods are an important dietary source of many nutrients, including calcium, potassium and vitamin D, which are nutrients of public health concern.
A new study conducted by National Dairy Council scientists demonstrates the role dairy foods can play in reducing the prevalence of inadequate nutrient consumption. First, the authors looked at current consumption of dairy foods by Americans. The 2010 DGAs recommends 3 cups per day of fat-free or low-fat milk and milk products for Americans over the age of 9 years, 2 ½ cups per day for children ages 4 to 8 years, and 2 cups for children ages 2 to 3 years.
As you can see from the graph, the study found that milk consumption is highest among 2 to 3 and 4 to 8 year olds. For ages 4 and older, more girls/women than boys/men fail to eat the recommended amount of dairy foods. In fact, 99 percent of females 9 years and older do not meet dairy recommendations. Cheese consumption is low for 2 to 3 year olds, increases during adulthood, then declines at ages 71 and older. Surprisingly, yogurt was not a major contributor to the number of dairy servings in any group.
After looking at current levels of dairy food consumption, the researchers investigated whether consumption at recommended levels could offset some of nutrient deficits in the American diet. Depending on age and gender, 30–99 percent of Americans fall below the Estimated Average Requirement (EAR) for calcium, magnesium, vitamin A and vitamin D. If everyone ate the recommended servings of dairy foods, essentially all Americans would meet the recommended amount of calcium. Women and girls would benefit the most as they have a much higher prevalence of inadequate calcium consumption.
Significant improvements would also be seen in vitamin A and magnesium consumption. In contrast, eating an adequate amount of dairy foods would not reduce the prevalence of inadequate vitamin D consumption because consumption is far from recommended for a large portion of the population. However, sun exposure also contributes to vitamin D status, so both factors need to be evaluated when determining vitamin D needs.
This study illustrates the important role that dairy foods can play in helping Americans meet their nutrient needs. It also highlights the need for a balanced approach to nutrition. Dairy foods can help make up some of the deficit in nutrient consumption. Not only are dairy foods an important source of essential nutrients in the American diet, the consumption of milk and milk products has been linked to better bone health, especially in children and adolescents, a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease and Type 2 diabetes and lower blood pressure in adults.