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Dairy Foods Offer Unique Health Benefits

Consuming dairy foods as part of a healthy eating pattern can help close nutrition gaps while supporting optimal growth and development in children.

Dairy foods support bone health, but they also offer much more.

By: Kristal Shelden, MPH, RDN

  • Tuesday, December 3, 2019
  • 3 Minute Read   

Summary of Key Points

  • Dairy foods offer a unique combination of nutrients that supports overall health for people of all ages.
  • Recent research indicates dairy foods can help reduce risk of chronic diseases such as diabetes, obesity and heart disease.
  • An eating pattern that includes dairy along with fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lean protein can help close the nutrient gaps that exist in the American diet and promote optimal health.


The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends eating patterns that include consumption of a variety of plant-based foods, lean protein and dairy foods to meet nutritional needs and reduce the risk of chronic diseases.

The three eating patterns recommended—the Healthy US-Style, the Healthy Mediterranean-Style and the Healthy Vegetarian—are preferred because studies examining the American diet show that Americans of all ages are not consuming enough dairy foods, whole grains, fruits and vegetables. As a result, they are not getting enough calcium, vitamin D, potassium and fiber—the four nutrients of concern in the American diet that are important for supporting the optimal growth and development of young children and adolescents, as well as meeting the nutritional needs of adults of all ages.

Young children and adolescents have nutritional needs that differ from other age groups. During these important growth windows, it is vital for growing children to have adequate nutrition to ensure they can reach their full potential. Dairy foods play a critical role in nourishment, providing the nutrients required for optimal growth and development. Research shows that when dairy foods such as milk, cheese and yogurt are consumed as part of a healthy eating pattern and combined with fruits, vegetables and whole grains, all four of the nutrients of concern are likely to be consumed in the right amounts.

Breakfast a great opportunity for children to establish healthy eating habits. Research suggests that by eating school breakfast every day, children are able increase intakes of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and dairy, which not only helps close nutritional gaps but also supports academic success.

Dairy foods support bone health, but they also offer much more, playing an important role in supporting overall health. There is a growing body of evidence that links consuming milk and dairy foods with reduced risk of chronic diseases such as type 2 diabetes, obesity and heart disease. A recent multinational study demonstrated a link between consuming two or more servings of dairy daily to a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke, and numerous studies demonstrate positive associations between dairy intake and blood pressure control.

Dairy foods have a unique nutrient structure, with both macronutrients and micronutrients that support optimal health—especially in infancy, childhood and adolescence, when bone mass growth is in a critical phase. Dairy milk, in comparison to plant-based alternative beverages, offers the most balanced distribution of energy from carbohydrates, protein and fat, and coupled with its unique nutrient package, dairy milk can be difficult to replace in a healthy dietary pattern. Young children who do not meet the daily recommended servings of dairy milk, yogurt or cheese may have inadequate intakes of important nutrients and protein necessary for bone health, lean muscle, cognitive development and more.

While additional research will continue to improve the understanding of how dairy foods contribute to reducing chronic diseases, evidence continues to show that eating patterns that include dairy along with fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean protein and healthy fats promote optimal health outcomes, including healthy growth and development.

Watch this episode of Ask A Nutritionist as Maria Frye, RDN, answers the question, "Why is dairy an important food group?”


Alexander DD, Bylsma LC, Vargas AJ, et al. Dairy consumption and CVD: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Br J Nutr. 2016;115:737-750. doi.org/10.1017/S0007114515005000
Aune D, Norat T, Romunstadt P, Vatten LJ. Dairy products and the risk of type 2 diabetes: a systematic review and dose-response meta-analysis of cohort studies. Am J Clin Nutr. 2013;98(4):1066-1083. doi.org/10.3945/ajcn.113.059030
Bradley BJ, Greene AC. Do health and education agencies in the United States share responsibility for academic achievement and health? A review of 25 years of evidence about the relationship of adolescents’ academic achievement and health behaviors. J Adolesc Health. 2013;52(5):523-532. doi.org/10.1016/j.jadohealth.2013.01.008
Dehghan M, Mente A, Rangarajan S, et al. Association of dairy intake with cardiovascular disease and mortality in 21 countries from five continents (PURE): a prospective cohort study. Lancet. 2018. doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(18)31812-9
Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee. Scientific Report of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee: Advisory Report to the Secretary of Health and Human Services and the Secretary of Agriculture. Washington, DC: US Dept of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service; 2015.  health.gov/dietaryguidelines/2015-scientific-report/
Ramsay SA, Bloch TD, Marriage B, Shriver LH, Spees CK, Taylor CA. Skipping breakfast is associated with lower diet quality in young US children. Eur J Clin Nutr. 2018;72:548-556. doi.org/10.1038/s41430-018-0084-3
Rizzoli R. Dairy products, yogurts, and bone health. Am J Clin Nutr. 2014;99(5Suppl.): 1256S-62S. doi.org/10.3945/ajcn.113.073056
US Department of Health and Human Services; US Department of Agriculture. 2015–2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. 8th Ed. Washington, DC: US Dept of Health and Human Services; 2015. health.gov/dietaryguidelines/2015/guidelines/
Wang W, Wu Y, Zhang D. Association of dairy products consumption with risk of obesity in children and adults: a meta-analysis of mainly cross-sectional studies. Ann Epidemiol. 2016; 26(12):870-882. doi.org/10.1016/j.annepidem.2016.09.005

Kristal Shelden, MPH, RDN

Kristal Shelden, MPH, RDN

Kristal Shelden is Dairy Council of CA’s advocacy manager, driving the organization’s thought leadership strategies and communications.

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