Dairy products and alternatives constitute one of the five food groups in the Australian Dietary Guidelines. “Alternatives” are included in this group because there is an increasing number of people who cannot or choose not to consume foods derived from animal milk. Is dairy good for you? As it’s often the case, it depends.
What is dairy?
Dairy products is the name given to milk and products made from milk of animals such as cows, goats and sheep. This includes fermented milk products such as yoghurt, kefir and cheese. While cream, ice cream and butter are technically dairy products, they should not be consumed on a regular basis.
Nutrients in dairy
The nutrients in milk and other dairy foods include protein (whey, casein and specific bioactive peptides), calcium, potassium, iodine, vitamin A, vitamin D, riboflavin, vitamin B12 and zinc (1, 2). They also contain fatty acids such as conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), important for the delivery of vitamins A and D, which are fat-soluble (4). Obviously, the amount depends on the specific food. The table below shows nutrient content of selected foods (2).
It’s important to remember that foods are more than individual nutrients. There are many things about the interactions between then components of foods that we don’t understand. In many cases, this manifests as higher absorption of particular nutrients from whole foods than from supplements. In general, whole, minimally processed foods should be the foundation of a healthy diet.
Although we think about bones as hard, static structures, they are a living tissue in a constant flow of formation and degradation. Milk and other dairy products contain calcium, vitamin D and protein, which are key for this process. In addition, other nutrients in dairy such as vitamin A, potassium, zinc and magnesium play a role in bone formation (3).
In general, the bulk of the research indicates that dairy products (except for butter) are neutral or beneficial for cardiovascular disease risk (4, 5).
The proteins and minerals in milk may also help reduce or maintain healthy blood pressure levels (4, 5).
Dairy consumption may be effective in reducing inflammation, however more research needs to be done (4).
There is evidence that shows an inverse relationship between dairy consumption and type 2 diabetes, and a positive effect on insulin sensitivity (3).
Dairy consumption seems to have an either neutral or short-term benefit (when energy restriction is applied) on body weight outcomes (3).
The lactic acid bacteria present in fermented dairy foods may prevent diarrhoea and improve lactose intolerance symptoms. In addition, they can improve the intestinal microbiome balance, leading to enhanced immunity (6).
What are dairy alternatives?
These are beverages made from cereals (e.g. rice, oats), legumes (e.g. soy) or nuts (e.g. almonds), or a combination (6).
The composition of dairy alternatives varies wildly (see charts below, with data from 2). For that reason, acceptable alternatives must, at least, be fortified with calcium.
Should you consume dairy?
There are many reasons why you may choose not to consume dairy foods, including allergy to different proteins in milk, lactose intolerance, irritable bowel syndrome, ideology, etc.
It is important to note that even if you have negative health reactions to some dairy products, you might do well with others. Moreover, you might be fine with foods made from goat, sheep or camel milk. You may use the flowchart below to guide your decision of whether to consume dairy or not, but speak to your dietitian for more personalised advice.
The minimum recommended intake varies with gender, age and life stage (i.e. pregnant, breastfeeding). The charts below shows the recommended minimum daily intake for males and females, respectively, expressed in number of serves (1).
What is a serve?
The following foods and quantities constitute one serve as per the current dietary guidelines. It is recommended to choose low-fat versions of these foods for people over the age of 2 (1). Last but not least, choose foods with no added sugars.
- 1 cup (250ml) milk or plant-based alternative with at least 100mg of added calcium per 100ml
- 1/2 cup (120ml) evaporated unsweetened milk
- 3/4 cup (200g) yoghurt
- 40g (2 slices or 4 x 3 x 2 cm piece) hard cheese e.g. cheddar
- 1/2 cup (120g) ricotta cheese
Read this article I wrote on the health benefits of dairy for a few ideas on how to incorporate different foods into your daily meals.
- National Health and Medical Research Council. Australian Dietary Guidelines. Canberra: National Health and Medical Research Council; 2013.
- Food Standards Australia New Zealand. AUSNUT 2011–13 – Australian Food Composition Database. 2014 [Available from: www.foodstandards.gov.au].
- Szilagyi A, Ishayek N. Lactose Intolerance, Dairy Avoidance, and Treatment Options. Nutrients. 2018;10(12).
- Markey O, Vasilopoulou D, Givens DI, Lovegrove JA. Dairy and cardiovascular health: Friend or foe? Nutrition Bulletin / Bnf. 2014;39(2):161-71.
- Lovegrove JA, Hobbs DA. New perspectives on dairy and cardiovascular health. Proceedings of the Nutrition Society. 2016;75(03):247-58.
- Food Standards Australia & New Zealand. Plant-based milk alternatives . 2016 [Available from: http://www.foodstandards.gov.au/consumer/nutrition/milkaltern/Pages/default.aspx].
- Umer Khan S. Probiotics in dairy foods: a review. Nutrition & Food Science. 2014;44(1):71-88.