19 Aug 2019
Milk and dairy is important in a healthy balanced diet, providing many nutrients essential for good health. Lucy Jones discusses the important role of milk and dairy plus there’s tips on how to boost your dairy intake.
Several celebrities ‘extreme’ diets suggest that milk and dairy should be avoided, however for many people cutting milk and dairy out is likely to do more harm than good as they play an important role within a healthy balanced diet. Milk and dairy foods are affordable, safe to consume daily, wholesome and a delicious source of essential nutrients.
Is it all about calcium?
Milk and dairy typically provide almost one third of our recommended calcium intakes but the nutrition provided by dairy products goes way beyond calcium alone. A single glass of semi-skimmed milk provides protein, phosphorus, potassium, iodine, riboflavin and pantothenic acid and a MASSIVE 72 per cent of our daily needs for vitamin B12. The main dietary source of B12 for vegetarians is dairy.
Together, the nutrients in milk and dairy help to:
- Keep muscles, bones, nerves, teeth, skin and vision healthy
- Release energy from foods and reduce tiredness and fatigue
- Maintain healthy blood pressure
- Support normal growth and brain development
- And even support normal immune functioning
That’s pretty impressive for a humble glass of milk! The UK Eatwell Guide recommends that milk and dairy products and their alternatives, form part of a healthy balanced diet, and lower fat and lower sugar options should be chosen where possible.
What about milk and dairy as we grow up?
Children grow rapidly in the first 5 years of life and have high energy needs. They only have small stomachs so need nutrient-dense foods to sustain them during growth. Whole milk and full fat dairy products provide useful energy, protein, vitamins and minerals to support growth and development. Milk also provides essential nutrients for growth and development and helps protect teeth against
Bones develop quickly in teenage years, with 40-60 per cent of peak bone mineral content being laid down in adolescence and 80-90 per cent of the skeleton being formed by the age of 18 years. A good diet in teenage years can increase bone mineral density which promotes healthy bones later in adult life, helping to prevent conditions like osteoporosis.
Milk in adult life
The amount of mineral in our bones (bone density) continues to rise until our mid-thirties but then this reverses and we slowly lose bone density. Milk contributes 19 per cent of calcium intake in the diets of UK adults.
During pregnancy and breastfeeding, it’s important women get enough calcium in their diet to meet both their own nutritional demands and that of their developing baby. There’s no need to increase calcium intake, but it’s important to get enough to limit calcium loss from bone during this time.
Women over the age of 50 are at higher risk of developing bone diseases. During the menopause, women can lose bone stores of calcium which is a risk factor for fractures. In postmenopausal women and older people, several studies have shown that increasing
milk slows the rate of bone loss.
As we age, milk and other dairy foods add nutritional value to our diets. Their soft, smooth texture makes them suitable for older adults with dental or swallowing issues. Higher fat dairy products like cream, butter and soft cheese can add nutrients and calories to puréed foods, helping people with poorer appetites to maintain weight.
Milk allergy and intolerance
Cows’ milk allergy affects 3-6 in every 100 infants and young children. Symptoms typically begin in the first few months of life and can include immediate breathing and swelling symptoms through to skin rashes and eczema, vomiting, diarrhoea and abdominal pain. Most children outgrow milk allergy by five years of age. Milk allergy in older children and adults is fairly rare.
More people suffer an intolerance to lactose, the sugar present in dairy products. Thought to affect 15-20 per cent of the population, it’s more likely among African and Asian people in addition to those with irritable bowel syndrome. It’s not an allergic condition but an inability to digest lactose as the body produces low levels of lactase, the enzyme responsible for digesting lactose.
Lactose intolerance may occur temporarily in both children and adults after a bout of gastroenteritis. Symptoms include diarrhoea, bloating and discomfort. Lactose is present in cow’s milk, goat’s milk and sheep’s milk in similar quantities. The only treatment is to limit or avoid dietary lactose. Some people’s response is ‘dose related’; they can tolerate milk in tea but a glass of milk would cause symptoms.
Lactose-free milk and yoghurt should help those with a lactose intolerance and still provide the nutritional benefits of dairy. A huge range of milk alternatives are available in the supermarket. These include soya, oat, hemp, rice and a range of nut milks like almond, hazelnut, coconut and cashew. Apart from soya, plant-based alternatives tend to be much lower in protein and all will be low in calcium. If you choose a plant-based alternative, choose one fortified with calcium and vitamin B12.
Red, green or blue top?
Whole milk (4% fat) is blue; semi skimmed (2% fat) is green and skimmed (0% fat) is red. You can now find 1% fat milk which might be orange or purple. Which you buy is your personal choice but only whole milk should be given to children under 2 years old and skimmed milk shouldn’t be given to those under 5 years old because of a lower vitamin A and fat content. A glass of whole milk contains almost double the calories of skimmed (126kcal versus 70kcal) so if you’re trying to lose or maintain weight, consider using a lower fat milk. Skimmed milk contains the same, if not slightly more, nutrients like protein, vitamins and minerals.
Milk, dairy and exercise
Milk and dairy can play a great nutrition role for people who keep fit and regularly exercise. Before exercise it provides carbohydrate for energy. After exercise it provides the right balance of carbohydrates, proteins and electrolytes to assist muscle recovery and rehydration. The mineral concentration of milk is similar to that of sports drinks and is considered just as effective, if not better, than a sports drink or water for rehydration.
Milk offers additional nutrients that may help the body retain fluid and milk is also great for dental health. Eating and drinking dairy (or whey protein) is associated with bigger increases in lean muscle gain and fat loss for those watching their weight.
Boost your intake
Aim for 3 portions of dairy foods daily. An adult portion size is:
1 glass of semi-skimmed milk
A 150g pot of plain low-fat yogurt
A matchbox-size piece of cheese (30g)
- Make hot milky drinks
- Drink smoothies or milkshakes
- Pop milk onto breakfast cereals, make porridge with milk
- Use milk or yogurt in mashed potato
- Top salads and jacket potatoes with grated cheese
- Use natural yogurt to replace mayo with egg or tuna
- Add a dollop of yogurt into soup instead of cream
- Top fruit with yogurt
- Freeze yoghurt mixed with blended fruit for an alternative to ice-cream
Stick to lower fat and lower sugar options to keep choices balanced and enjoy, knowing that dairy is supporting your long-term health.
Lucy Jones MRES BSC Hons RD MBDA is a consultant dietitian, with 10 years’ clinical experience. She is currently director of Nutrifit Health Ltd and Head of UK Dietetics for Oviva; focusing her time in continuing television roles, private practice (Spire Gatwick Park and 85 Wimpole Street), consultancy and spokesperson work.