Are all Dairy Foods the Same for Maintaining Health?

March 29, 2016

You have likely noticed that children growing up in the same family can be very different from each other in temperament and giftedness. The same is often true for foods within the same food group. Though foods in the same food group share general similarities, some of their specific contributions to maintaining health may be unique.

Oftentimes when we talk about milk, cheese and yogurt we tout their important nutrient contributions to the diet, but there’s a lot more to dairy foods than their nutrient content when it comes to maintaining health. In fact, as a recent comprehensive review published in January explains, nutrients alone can’t explain most of the associations between diet and chronic diseases. Instead, diseases such as heart disease and Type 2 diabetes are mainly influenced by specific foods and dietary patterns. That’s why the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans offers food-based guidance in the form of healthy eating styles.

So let’s look beyond the nutrients in dairy foods, to find out what we’ve learned about how milk, cheese, and yogurt may be uniquely linked to improving risk factors for cardiovascular disease, diabetes and stroke. 

Currently, dietary recommendations for dairy foods within healthy eating styles are still largely driven by the contribution and effects of single nutrients, such as calcium, vitamin D, calories or saturated fat. Milk, yogurt and cheese are included in the dairy group and are categorized by fat content. However, emerging scientific evidence is showing that the health associations of dairy foods may depend on multiple, complex characteristics including probiotics in yogurt and fermentation of cheese. For example:

  • Consumption of yogurt is consistently associated with lower incidence of Type 2 diabetes and consumption of cheese, another fermented food, is also associated with lower diabetes risk in several studies, regardless of its calorie, fat or saturated fat content.
  • Emerging evidence suggests that dairy fat may promote cardiometabolic health. In studies using blood biomarkers of dairy fat to measure intake, greater dairy fat consumption is associated with a lower incidence of Type 2 diabetes and coronary heart disease, with mixed results for stroke.

I’m fascinated by what we have learned already about the different associations between individual dairy foods and health – and I’m excited about what we will learn as new research on their unique roles continues to build and evolve the dairy story. 

In the meantime, you can encourage people to consume a wide variety of dairy foods every day to maintain overall health. Milk, yogurt and cheese are so versatile, they can be used in appetizers, salads, sandwiches, casseroles, desserts and more. Check here for food ideas and recipes to share with your colleagues, friends and family.