June is National Dairy Month and a great time to think about the many health benefits of dairy. Milk and dairy products are a primary souce of calcium in our diet and provide many health benefits for people of all ages. We most often associate milk with improved bone health. While milk certainly is important to bone health, the benefits of milk go well beyond our bones. Calcium is also needed for heart muscles to contract, nerves to work properly, and for blood to clot. Consider the following benefits of dairy foods:
Bone Health: Calcium and vitamin D are essential to bone health. Adequate calcium helps build bone mass in children and adolescents, and it helps slow bone loss associated with aging. Vitamin D is necessary for calcium to be absorbed in the gut. Both calcium and vitamin D are considered “nutrients of concern” by the Dietary Guidelines for Americans because they are frequently under consumed in the American diet. Milk naturally contains calcium, is fortified with vitamin D, and is a convenient and economical source for both nutrients.
Chronic Disease: Scientific studies link consumption of dairy foods to a lower risk of several chronic health problems. Consumption of dairy products, especially milk, is associated with a lower prevalence of metabolic syndrome. Metabolic syndrome is a cluster of conditions including abdominal obesity, insulin resistance, elevated blood glucose, abnormal blood lipids such as triglycerides and cholesterol, and high blood pressure. Metabolic syndrome increases a person’s risk for type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and stroke. Dairy foods, and particularly yogurt, are associated with a reduced risk of type 2 diabetes in adults. The intake of the recommended servings of dairy are also linked to a reduced rate of overweight and obesity in children.
Probiotics: Consumer interest in probiotics has been growing. Probiotics are living microorganisms known to have health benefits. Probiotics we consume contribute to the trillions of microorganisms, also known as “good bacteria,” that make up the microbiome of our gut and are considered essential to our health and immune system. Examples of dairy products that contain probiotics are aged cheeses, such as cheddar or gouda; kefir, a probiotic milk drink; and yogurt. The refrigeration of dairy products helps maintain these probiotics.
Protein: Dietary protein is essential for growth in children; for repairing and maintaining body tissues; building enzymes, hormones, and antibodies; and maintaining acid-base and fluid balances. Milk contains two types of high-quality proteins, whey and casein. The whey and casein proteins in milk contain all the essential amino acids in enough amounts to support the many roles that proteins play in our bodies. The combination of high-quality protein, fluid, and carbohydrate in milk also makes it an effective recovery drink for athletes after strenuous workouts. In addition, milk has been shown to be a more effective rehydration drink than sports drinks post-exercise.
Nutrient Synergy: In the nutrition world, there is a term called nutrient synergy. Nutrient synergy refers to the increased health benefit when nutrients are combined as compared to the impact of individual nutrients. Nutrients work synergistically to improve each other’s absorption and the physiological impact they have on our body. In other words, nutrients work best together, not in isolation. Although milk and dairy products are most commonly recognized for the calcium and vitamin D they contain to support bone health, dairy products also contain protein, manganese, zinc, vitamin K, phosphorus, and magnesium. All these nutrients work together to maintain bone and overall health.
We know that milk and dairy products are an important part of our daily diet. But, how much milk should we drink? Children between 1 and 2 years of age should consume 2 to 3 cups of whole milk each day. Children aged 2 and above, and adults should consume 2 to 3 cups of skim or low-fat milk each day. As we enter the summer season, think of the many ways you can incorporate dairy foods into your daily diet.