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What is the Role of Dairy in the Mediterranean Diet?

June 18, 2015

As you know, the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans emphasized nutrient-dense eating patterns to help meet nutrient recommendations within calorie needs. The emphasis on eating patterns has continued with the submission of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC) report in February to HHS/USDA, which serves as scientific guidance from the Committee for the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, scheduled for release later this year. For the first time, the 2015 DGAC included a chapter focused solely on the relationship between eating patterns (i.e., Healthy U.S., Healthy Vegetarian and Mediterranean) and health outcomes.

More research on the role of a variety of dairy foods in dietary patterns, including the Mediterranean diet, would increase understanding and appreciation of the role of dairy foods in healthy eating.

The Mediterranean-style pattern, though loosely defined, has been gaining more attention over the last few years. Publication of the PREDIMED (Prevention with the Mediterranean Diet) multicenter randomized trial in 2014 by researchers in Spain, raised awareness in the health professional community and the general public that the Mediterranean-style pattern might help lower cardiovascular events in those at risk. However, when it comes to type 2 diabetes (T2D), a 2014 USDA report on the relationship of dietary patterns to health stated, “There is insufficient evidence on a relationship between adherence to a Mediterranean-style or vegetarian diet pattern and incidence of type 2 diabetes.”

New emerging research published earlier this year may help further define the role of dairy foods in the Mediterranean eating pattern, especially when it comes to health outcomes like type 2 diabetes. A 4-year prospective study, conducted among a group of elderly at high cardiovascular risk enrolled in the PREDIMED study, points to dairy foods as a possible key component in helping a Spanish Mediterranean population reduce their risk of developing T2D.

People who ate the most dairy foods — 539 grams per day, which could be about 3 servings of milk, cheese, and yogurt — as part of their Mediterranean eating plan had a 32 percent reduced risk of developing T2D.

The relationship appeared to be strongest for total low-fat dairy, low-fat milk and yogurt. These findings help confirm the value of dairy foods within the Mediterranean pattern and their association with reducing T2D risk.

Research continues to accumulate, showing associations of dairy food, like milk, cheese and yogurt, consumption with cardiovascular health as well as reduced risk of T2D. As a science summary on dairy and T2D notes, “Nutrients such as calcium, magnesium and vitamin D found in dairy foods may contribute to the observed effect on Type 2 diabetes.”

So when helping your clients choose a meal plan to promote health, especially when it comes to those at increased risk for T2D, don’t dismiss the value of including three servings of low-fat or fat-free milk, yogurt and cheese.

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