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The many health benefits of dairy

Many people recall the slogan "Milk, it does a body good." But as different health fads have emerged since that slogan was first uttered, including increased availability of dairy alternatives, dairy has been pushed aside, leaving many people to question if it is a friend or foe.

According to Vasanti Malik, a nutrition research scientist with the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, dairy isn't necessary to maintain optimal human health. However, it is one of the best and easiest ways to get ample amounts of vitamin D, protein and calcium, each of which keeps vital organs, muscles and bones functioning properly. Here's a deeper look at dairy in the average diet.

What is dairy?

Dairy products consist of a variety of products that are from mammals, including cows, goats and sheep. These include milk, yogurt, cheese, kefir, ice cream, butter, ghee, cream, cream cheese, sour cream, whey products, and casein. Dairy products are often categorized as "regular," "whole," "reduced fat," "low-fat," or "skim." These characterizations indicate the fat content in a given item.

Nutritional benefits of dairy

Dairy products are nutrient-dense and great sources of protein, calcium and vitamins. Protein builds and repairs muscle tissue; carbohydrates in milk provide energy, and calcium and phosphorous can help strengthen bones and teeth. Vitamin D helps promote the absorption of calcium. Dairy also contains riboflavin, vitamin A, pantothenic acid, potassium and niacin. One eight-ounce serving of milk contains the recommended daily values of these nutrients based on guidelines from the U.S. Food & Drug Administration.

Bone health

Dairy protein and calcium may play critical roles in bone health and density, helping to reduce the risk for osteoporosis, states the Dairy Alliance. Eating and drinking foods rich in calcium may offset a possible protein-calcium loss that occurs with aging, thus protecting bone health.

Heart health benefits

Some people avoid dairy because of the perception it is bad for cardiac health. A report presented at the 2018 Congress of the European Society of Cardiology that looked at 20 studies involving around 25,000 people found no association between consuming most dairy products (including whole-fat varieties) and cardiovascular disease. The only exception was milk, but the results showed one would have to drink almost a litre of milk a day for a higher risk of cardiovascular disease. Still, the American Heart Association recommends adults choose fat-free or low-fat dairy products whenever possible. Also, a 2018 study published in the British Journal of Nutrition found men who ate plenty of fermented dairy products like yogurt and cheese had a smaller risk of coronary artery disease than men who ate less.

Additional benefits of dairy include a reduced risk of childhood obesity and an improvement in body composition and weight loss during energy restriction in adults, according to a 2016 report in the Journal of Food and Nutrition Research.

Dairy provides many health benefits. People concerned about their overall health should work recommended dairy servings into their daily diets.

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