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A Balanced Diet Part VI: Milk, Yogurt and Cheese

We all love ice cream, milkshakes, and cheese trays, but making the right dairy choices in the dairy group, as well as all other food groups, is the key to maintaining a healthy diet.  The dairy group includes cheese, milk, yogurt, soymilk, and all the products made from them.  Lots of important nutrients come from dairy products, but it is possible to have too much of a good thing when it comes to things like cheese and ice cream.  Getting the proper amount of dairy products may reduce the risk of osteoporosis, and has been shown to improve bone health.  Calcium is especially important during childhood, as bones are growing and mass is accruing.  Good dairy intake is also a source of reduced risk for cardiovascular diseases and type 2 diabetes, as well as having been shown to lower blood pressure in adults.

Milk, yogurt and cheese all contain calcium, protein, potassium, and vitamin D.  Calcium serves as the building blocks for bones and teeth by helping them grow and maintain their mass.  Vitamin D works with the body to help it absorb calcium, reduce inflammation and boost immune function.  Dairy protein, just like the protein found in the Meat Group, helps build muscle and provide energy, while potassium can help maintain healthy blood pressure.

Choosing low-fat or fat-free dairy products is best because they contain little to no solid, or saturated, fat.  Saturated fats contain high levels of LDL (low-density lipids), bad cholesterol, and a diet high in LDL can increase risk for coronary heart disease.  Whole milk and many cheeses are high in saturated fats, so limiting dairy choices to low- and non-fat options is important when trying to control your intake or empty calories.

Even when consuming low- and non-fat dairy products, following the suggested guidelines for daily servings, and adjusting based on increased activity, is part of maintaining a balanced diet.  For the Dairy Group, three servings are recommended each day, though dairy products should not exceed 30% of caloric intake per day.  One serving is considered one cup of milk [fat-free (skim) or low-fat (1% or 2%)], one eight ounce container of yogurt, 1½ ounces of hard cheese, one third cup of shredded cheese (cheddar), two ounces of processed cheese (American), one cup of pudding made with milk, one cup of frozen yogurt, 1½ cups ice cream or one cup of calcium-fortified soymilk.

It can be hard to make good choices, but here are some ways to make it simple.  Order lattes and cappuccinos with fat-free milk, add fat-free or low-fat milk to oatmeal instead of water, use yogurt as a dip for fruits and vegetables, and use low-fat cheese to top casseroles and soups.  Be sure to avoid raw (unpasteurized) milk, chill perishable foods promptly and keep separate raw and cooked foods.  Follow these guidelines and you’ll be sure to make good Dairy Group choices to help you maintain your balanced and healthy diet.

To learn more about the Dairy Group, visit http://www.choosemyplate.gov/food-groups/dairy.html.  Then make sure to come back for next week’s Food Group: Fats, Oils and Sweets.