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Is dairy healthy? Nutritionist explains full-fat, low-fat, reduced-fat dairy

What is best for you: full-fat, non-fat, low-fat or reduced-fat dairy? A nutritionist breaks down what it all means, and how nut-based dairy products factor in.
/ Source: TODAY

You’re not alone if you’ve been wondering what’s the truth about dairy. Is it good or bad for your health? The answer depends on the type of dairy you choose, as well as your ability to digest it. That’s where a lot of the confusion comes from.

While dairy products are a nutrient-rich group of foods, with definite health benefits, no one needs to consume dairy for good health. If you choose to avoid dairy, or can't digest it, there are alternatives for obtaining the nutritional benefits of dairy, particularly for maintaining strong bones and teeth.

Health benefits of dairy

Milk and dairy products are nutrient-rich — providing an excellent source of dietary calcium, and fortified with vitamin D to boost calcium absorption. An easily digestible source of protein, dairy products also contribute potassium, magnesium, phosphorus, vitamin A, riboflavin (vitamin B2) and vitamin B12.

Other important contributors to maintaining strong bones and teeth are the “milk solids," the compounds that make dairy products white.

Dairy products are available as full-fat, reduced-fat, low-fat and fat-free. All dairy milks have same nutrients, whether you’re choosing whole (around 4 percent fat) reduced-fat (around 2 percent fat), low-fat (around 1 percent fat) or fat-free (0 - 0.2 percent fat). Choosing reduced- or fat-free dairy products, and limiting full-fat dairy foods is an effective way to limit saturated (artery clogging) fat intake. Eating this way provides all of the positive benefits of dairy, without the risk of elevating saturated fat.

Though, it’s important to add that newer research shows that rather than complete avoidance of full-fat foods like butter, cream and cheese, limiting portions and the frequency of eating them can be a more realistic eating plan for many people, without adding a significant health risk. But always check with your doctor for personalized guidance on your saturated fat intake.

What about nut milks?

Soy and nut “milks” are not dairy products, and while they're fortified with calcium and vitamin D, they're very low in protein. A proposed label change based on federal guidelines is upcoming, to only allow products from a nursing animal — think cows and goats — to be legally called milk. Plant and nut sources will likely be renamed.

How much dairy should you eat?

The recommended daily intake is 2-3 servings. Older children, teens and adults over age 50 need 3 servings daily. Others need 2 servings. And, for pregnancy and lactation, the number of servings remains the same as for non-pregnant women.

Whole milk is not advised, nutritionally, for those over 2 years old, or with special dietary needs. Yet there’s no need to switch to 0 percent fat milk if you don’t like the taste, instead opt for 1 percent or 2 percent milk.

What is a serving of dairy?

A serving size of milk is 8 ounces, importantly providing 8 grams of protein — the same as one egg.

It takes about 10 pounds of milk to make one pound of cheese, so it’s a concentrated source of many of milk’s nutrients. A serving size of cheese is about an ounce and a half, which the American Heart Association equates to the size of four stacked dice. Because of its density, fat and calories, it’s important to choose portions wisely. And it’s so tasty, it’s often hard to limit portions.

Think of cheese as a flavor enhancer, supporting your meal, but not being a main part. And, a hard cheese like Parmesan, can be grated, so a little goes a long way. Reduced-fat cheeses can be an option, to save calories and saturated fat, and still maintain flavor (fat provides a pop to your taste buds).

Yogurt is a cultured milk product — it contains probiotics, healthy bacteria. Yogurt can be a boost to digestive health, depending on the type you choose. Stick with plain — not fruit or flavored — in a 6–8-ounce serving, and add your own fresh or frozen fruit (there can be a lot of added sugars in many brands).

For those who would like the health benefits of dairy, but have digestive issues, yogurt can often be an option. Yogurt contains bacteria that digests a lot of the lactose from the milk. And, Greek yogurt (concentrated) is almost lactose-free. Many people with lactose intolerance can consume one yogurt a day, without any digestive distress. But talk to your doctor before making any changes with dairy if you are intolerant.

Tips for choosing dairy products:

  • Aim for 2-3 servings a day of reduced, low-fat or non-fat dairy products
  • Limit your intake of full-fat dairy products
  • Choose products without added sugars (like chocolate milk or fruit yogurt)
  • Organic products don’t have more nutrients, but are guaranteed to be antibiotic-free

If you follow a dairy-free diet...

It’s important to maintain adequate calcium intake when you’re dairy-free. While dark green vegetables are rich in calcium, it’s not an even swap with 1 cup of milk or yogurt. It takes nearly 3 cups of broccoli and 7 cups of arugula to provide the same dietary amount of calcium (that's a lot!).

Tally up your daily calcium intake. Aim to strive for about 1000 mg, and add a calcium supplement if necessary. Before adding a supplement, always check with your doctor for advice.

Protein needs can be met with other sources of plants and animals. Most other nut and alternative “milks” are very low in protein, with the exception of soy milk, so make sure to tally up your servings to meet your daily protein needs.

Madelyn Fernstrom PhD is the NBC News Health and Nutrition Editor. Follow her on Twitter @drfernstrom. For more diet and fitness advice, sign up for our One Small Thing newsletter.