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Dairy’s Importance at Each Life Stage

From infants to older adults, dairy plays an important role in healthy eating patterns across our entire lifespan.  This is according to the latest Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which also found that 90 percent of Americans could benefit from an extra serving of low-fat or fat-free dairy foods each day. So how much dairy should you consume?  That depends on age.  Here are the benefits of dairy for different ages as well as how much dairy is recommended at each stage of our lives. 


The new guidelines for the first time included introducing dairy as early as 6 months of age to complement human milk or infant formula as a way to ensure adequate nutrition.  This includes full-fat yogurt and low sodium cheeses.  In addition to the added nutrition, the different ranges of flavors and textures can help to build the foundation for future healthy eating habits. 


Whole milk and other dairy products become more important as babies transition from human milk or formula. A baby’s brain doubles in size within the first 12 months and triples to almost adult size by 36 months.  In fact, an infant’s brain uses over 50 percent of consumed daily calories.  In addition to providing calories, whole milk has many critical nutrients like high-quality protein, calcium and vitamin D for strong teeth and bones, iodine for cognitive function and others. So how much dairy should your toddler consume?  The recommendation is one and two thirds to two cups per day. 


For kids two to five years old, leading health experts agree water and plain milk are the only recommended beverages. As kids get more active, milk also helps to keep them hydrated as it consists of about 90 percent water. Plant-based alternatives are not recommended due to their wide variability in nutrient content, limited evidence of bioavailability and impact on diet quality and health outcomes. For this age group, two cups of dairy are recommended daily. 

Grade schoolers 

Grade school is an important time to build healthy eating habits and to ensure dairy is part of their daily eating habits. Dairy can be incorporated into their meals in fun, easy and delicious ways.  For example, flavored milk is an excellent alternative to soda or sports drinks. Remember that all milk, including whole, reduced fat, and flavored provide the same 13 essential vitamins their bodies need.  


With their changing and developing bodies, dairy plays an important role in the diet of teens and adolescents.  This is why health experts recommend teens have at least 3 servings of dairy per day.  Studies have also shown that students who have a balanced breakfast high in protein do better in school.  One glass of milk has 8 grams of high-quality protein and is a great way to help teens obtain this important and needed nutrient.  For teen girls, the vitamin B12 found naturally in milk helps to keep them from falling short on this important bone building nutrient they need. 


Adults ages 19-59 years old should consume 3 servings of dairy per day to help their current health as well as to help to prevent future diseases.  For example, low-fat or fat-free foods are associated with lower risk of type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.  The calcium and protein in milk also helps to prevent osteoporosis. For adults who are lactose intolerant, there are numerous lactose-free options available from milk to ice cream that have the same nutritional value as dairy with lactose.  Thus, lactose intolerance is not a reason to consider switching to a plant-based milk imitator. 


As we enter the later years, maintaining healthy nutrition and wellness habits are important to protect against natural health conditions related to changes in bone and muscle mass.  For seniors on a fixed income, dairy foods are one of the most affordable sources of nutrition. Three servings of milk can cost as little as $0.60 per day, making milk one of the lowest cost sources of calcium and vitamin D.  

Regardless of the life stage, incorporating dairy into your daily diet is a delicious and affordable way to obtain the needed nutrients our bodies need to develop and prevent many diseases.  Ensuring you reach the recommended daily servings of dairy can be as easy as having a glass of milk with each meal or making small changes, such as adding milk to oatmeal instead of water or replacing mayonnaise in recipes with Greek yogurt.  

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