Consuming dairy foods as part of a healthy eating pattern can help close nutrition gaps while supporting optimal growth and development in children.
By: Kristal Shelden, MPH, RDN
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.
Kristal Shelden, MPH, RDN
Kristal Shelden, MPH, RDN
Kristal is the project manager of nutrition science and a registered dietitian nutritionist.
PE teacher Scott Brown highlights his experience in teaching nutrition education with Let’s Eat Healthy "Exercise Your Options" curriculum.
Research continues to find that eating school meals every day is associated with healthier dietary intakes among U.S. schoolchildren.