There are many healthy ways to meet your daily dairy requirements

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By Carter Davis
Virginia Cooperative Extension Intern

    Since 1937, June has been recognized as what started out as Nation Milk Month now called National Dairy Month. 
    As it’s known, milk is not the only dairy product available.  Some of these other products include eggnog, cheese, butter, yogurt, ice-cream, and many others.   However, the concern in today’s society is focused on health problems.  When choosing a dairy product, there is usually a choice about what percent of fat you want, what flavor, what size, and much more!  A lot of times all these choices are overwhelming and can even be misleading or confusing. 
    Where to begin? 
    Eating healthy has become a significant factor for many people as they make their choices.  I’m a huge fan of all things dairy, but it’s important to make sure everybody consumes the appropriate types of dairy.  For instance, eating a huge bowl of chocolate ice-cream everyday as part of getting the recommended dairy nutrition serving, is not the best idea.  There are also flavored milks that have high quantities of sugar added. 
    While they may taste delicious, they are certainly not the healthiest option.  Then again, who wants to consume something that doesn’t taste good?  Instead of eating ice-cream, try replacing it with a single serving of low-fat frozen flavored yogurt.  It’s much healthier and will still satisfy cravings.  Switching from whole milk to skim milk can save 60 calories per day and 8 grams of fat.  
    There are about 150 calories in whole milk and 8 grams of fat, while there are only 90 calories in skim milk and no fat.  In one year, switching from one cup of whole milk to one cup of skim milk every day would save approximately 21,900 calories 2,920 grams of fat!  That’s a lot of calories and a lot of fat!  There are studies showing that most people can’t taste the difference between whole, 2%, 1%, and skim milk.  If looked at carefully, the only nutritional differences between whole milk and fat-free milk is the amount of fat, calories, and cholesterol.  So why not get the same nutritional value with fewer fat, calories, and cholesterol? 
    As mentioned before, milk is not the only way to meet your dairy requirements for the day.  Yogurt is a great alternative to just drinking milk.  The human body needs to have a healthy amount of ‘’good’’ bacteria in the digestive tract, and now many currents yogurts contain active and live cultures to promote healthy digestion.  Because yogurt is made from milk, it is also a good source of protein, calcium, vitamins, potassium, and magnesium.  Yogurt ferments due to the healthy bacteria added to it. 
    This process causes the yogurt to thicken.  After the yogurt is fermented, it is strained through cheesecloth, removing the whey (the watery part of milk that remains after the formation of curds, a white substance).  Regular yogurt is only strained twice, but Greek yogurt is strained three times to remove more whey, giving it a thicker consistency.  It also has a higher amount of protein along with fewer carbohydrates and approximately the same amount of calories.  It’s not just a fad; Greek low-fat yogurt is actually good for any diet! 
    Contrary to popular belief, cheese can be healthy.  Cheese, like most dairy products, helps support bone growth.  But there are some myths about cheese.  There is one myth that firmer cheeses are healthier.  However, the texture of the cheese has no effect on the nutritional value.  Some claims have been made that eating cheese may cause heart disease.  This is true, but only if the “bad” cheeses are eaten instead of healthier options.  If given the option choose fat-free or low-fat products.  Fat-free and low-fat products are fine to eat, especially in moderation. 
    I’m not saying to never eat these cheeses, but eating full-fat cheeses is what gets you in trouble since these foods often are comprised of large amounts of saturated fat.  Any diet loaded with saturated fats will raise your blood cholesterol, which in turn can contribute to heart disease.   Low-fat cheeses have the same nutritional value as full-fat cheeses minus the saturated fat.  Sometimes the downside is that low-fat cheeses do not taste as well.  Cheese is not shown to have any weight-loss benefits.  Being careful about what kind of cheese is eaten and how much is consumed is critical for a healthy diet.
    What about ice-cream? 
    Ice cream is an energy-dense food rich in carbohydrates.  It can provide almost twice the amount of energy than in ½ cup of whole milk.  If in a program designed to gain weight or get an energy boost, ice-cream may be a good option.  However, I don’t know too many people trying to gain weight.  Eating ice-cream on a sunny summer afternoon may satisfy a craving, but it’ll also contribute to some health issues.  Like all things, ice-cream is acceptable in moderation.  It is also a source of many vitamins and minerals essential in diets. 
    The downside: ice-cream is extremely high in fat.  The milk fat found in ice-cream is largely cholesterol (saturated fat).  Danger arises when blood cholesterol levels are too high; it can build up as plaque which raises risk of heart disease and stroke.  It’s also high in sugar.  This is a concern because sugar may contribute to several health problems such as weight gain, cavities and increased levels of blood triglycerides.  In order to lower the risk for such related health issues, choose ice-cream with a low-fat or low-sugar content.  Substituting any dairy product for a lower fat content can help tremendously.
    All in all, dairy products are a great way to get many of the vitamins and minerals that are required to maintain a healthy lifestyle and promote stronger bone health.  By going with low-fat or fat-free choices, the fat intake will automatically be reduced while still enjoying all the health benefits.  Consuming dairy products provides nutrients including calcium, vitamin D, potassium, and magnesium.  
    Calcium is important for building strong bones and helps prevent osteoporosis, especially in children and young adults.  Potassium can help control blood pressure and may even reduce the risk of having a stroke.  Dairy products contain 9 essential nutrients important for the body to have.  It can also be a valuable source of high quality protein.  Many dairy products are low glycemic index (GI). 
    A low GI food is a carbohydrate that is slowly digested producing a gradual rise in blood sugar levels.  If diabetes is a concern, the low GI foods can help manage it.  Consuming dairy products is also associated with a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes.   If a diet is high in saturated fats it will increase “bad” cholesterol levels in the blood.  The “bad” cholesterol, called LDL (low-density lipoprotein) cholesterol, is known to increase the chance for coronary heart disease. 
    However, as with anything, dairy is not perfect.  Milk contains small amounts of vitamin C, niacin, and iron.  There are several cheeses, ice-creams, and other products made high in saturated fat.  In order help keep blood cholesterol levels healthy, limiting the amount of saturated fats eaten is crucial.
    How much should be consumed per day?  Children ages 2-3 should be consuming 2 cups per day, children ages 4-8 should be consuming 2 ½ cups per day, and anyone over the age of 8 should be consuming 3 cups per day.   One cup is equal to 8 oz. milk, 2 slices of cheese (3 in. x 3¼ in.), ½ cup of frozen yogurt, 8 oz. yogurt, and one-third of a cup of shredded cheese.
    Another concern arises when someone is lactose intolerant.  Just because someone is lactose intolerant doesn’t mean they don’t need calcium and other important vitamins and minerals found in dairy products.  What can be done?  Try adding dairy based products slowly into the diet or search for other non-dairy foods rich in calcium and other essential vitamins dairy products provide.
    Where does Virginia stand in the dairy industry?  
    In 2012, Virginia ranked 23rd in milk production, 21st in number of milk cows, 38th in milk output per cow, and 14th in number of licensed dairy operations.   During 2012, Virginia had 7 commercial milk processing plants.  An estimation of 96,000 milk cows were on dairy farms.