On your plate: dairy

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If there’s one food group that can be polarizing, it’s the dairy group. It’s not unusual to overhear someone say they’ve “gone off of dairy because it causes inflammation” or that “milk is for baby cows and is toxic to humans”. How does this propaganda get started? Despite some consumers' belief that it is “unnatural” for humans to drink cow’s milk, people have been drinking milk and consuming dairy products for centuries. Let’s take a deep dive into the myths and facts about dairy products as we continue our series on the My Plate Simple Campaign.¹

For starters, most health experts recognize that milk and other dairy products are an excellent source of calcium and vitamin D, two nutrients needed for bone health. While both nutrients may be able to be obtained from other sources such as green leafy vegetables, calcium-fortified foods or vitamin/mineral supplements, dairy products provide a more concentrated and bioavailable source of each. In order to meet the same calcium found in an 8 oz glass of milk, a person would need to eat 14 cups of broccoli, which is highly unlikely. Research supports dairy consumption to help increase bone density as well as preventing age-related fractures. In addition, dairy foods improve bone growth in children and decrease bone loss in seniors. Cows that are grass fed have the additional bonus of vitamin K in their milk, which also impacts bone health. Studies show that the milk from grass- fed cows is also higher in omega-3 fatty acids.²

Another reason to include dairy products in your diet is diabetes reduction. A study done in Sweden found that adults that consumed more full fat dairy products had a 23% reduction in the development of diabetes compared to those with low intakes of dairy products. Researchers believe that full fat dairy products have a lower glycemic index, which may help with blood sugar reduction.   People with high cholesterol may need to limit full fat dairy products or use lower fat options to prevent increases in lipids. ²

Speaking of low-fat dairy products, low-fat dairy products are advised as part of the DASH Diet (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension). Studies indicate that diets containing high calcium and high potassium foods, including milk, cheese and yogurt, aid in reducing blood pressure. Those experiencing lactose intolerance may choose lactose free milk, low-fat cheese (which is low in lactose), or calcium-fortified juice and other foods.²

One reason people may be concerned about conventional dairy products is the addition of rBFH or recombinant bovine somatotropin hormone. Recombinant bST (RBST) is a man-made version of BST (bovine somatotropin) or BGH (bovine growth hormone), which cows produce naturally. RBGH is an FDA approved, growth hormone used on dairy cows to increase milk production. The concern is that the hormone is harmful to humans. The good news, according to the American Cancer Society, is that BGH is not active in humans. There may be concern, however that rBHG-treated cows have increased levels of IGF-1, a hormone that naturally increases cell growth. Previous studies suggested a relationship between levels of IGF-1 and the risk of breast, prostate and colon cancers, but newer research has not confirmed this. To reduce the risk of elevating IGF-1 levels, consider organic milk, which does not contain RBGH.³

While some may choose to avoid dairy products, most nutrition experts promote them as part of a healthy, balanced diet to maintain bone health, reduce blood pressure and reduce risk for diabetes.

MyPlate offers these strategies for plant based sources of calcium (4):

There are calcium choices for those who do not consume dairy products, though they are not part of the Dairy Group. The amount of calcium that can be absorbed from these foods varies.

  • Calcium-fortified juices, cereals, breads, rice milk, or almond milk
  • Canned fish (sardines, salmon with bones)
  • Soybeans, soy products (tofu made with calcium sulfate, soy yogurt, tempeh), and some other beans
  • Some leafy greens (collard and turnip greens, kale, bok choy)

The US Dietary Guidelines advises three servings of dairy per day for most age groups. Below are some simple ways to encourage clients to include more heart healthy dairy products:

  • Use 1% milk in coffee in place of cream
  • Add skim or 1% milk to oatmeal or other hot cereal
  • Mix fruit into yogurt for a snack
  • Use yogurt for a dip
  • Use skim milk or yogurt in place of juice for smoothies
  • Snack on string cheese and whole grain crackers


1.     https://www.choosemyplate.gov/start-simple-myplate

2.    Marangoni F1, Pellegrino L2, Verduci E3, Ghiselli A4, Bernabei R5, Calvani R5, Cetin I6, Giampietro M7, Perticone F8, Piretta L9, Giacco R10, La Vecchia C11, Brandi ML12, Ballardini D13, Banderali G14, Bellentani S15, Canzone G16, Cricelli C17, Faggiano P18, Ferrara N19, Flachi E20, Gonnelli S21, Macca C22, Magni P23, Marelli G24, Marrocco W25, Miniello VL26, Origo C27, Pietrantonio F28, Silvestri P29, Stella R30, Strazzullo P31, Troiano E32, Poli A1. Cow's Milk Consumption and Health: A Health Professional's Guide. J Am Coll Nutr. 2019 Mar-Apr;38(3):197-208

3. https://www.cancer.org/cancer/cancer-causes/recombinant-bovine-growth-hormone.html

4. https://health.gov/dietaryguidelines/2015/guidelines/appendix-11/

Submitted by Lisa Andrews, MEd, RD, LD

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