Low-Fat or Fat-Free Dairy Products

MyPlate, the current nutrition guide published by the USDA Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion, is a food circle depicting a place setting with a plate and glass divided into five food groups. It replaced the USDA’s MyPyramid guide on June 2, 2011, ending 19 years of USDA food pyramid diagrams. Today, let’s discuss the dairy portion of MyPlate, specifically of the low-fat and fat-free dairy variety —another food group encompassing delicious options with immense benefits! 

What foods are included in the dairy group?
The dairy group is made up of foods primarily made from milk. However, these foods must retain a significant portion of their natural calcium levels to be included in the dairy group. Milk-based foods such as cream, butter, cream cheese, and sour cream lose much of their calcium during processing. Because they are also predominantly made of fat, these foods are categorized as empty calories.

Milk-based foods that provide calcium and fit within the dairy group include:

  • Milk (fat-free dairy [skim], low-fat [1%], reduced fat [2%], whole, flavored, lactose-reduced, and lactose-free)
  • Yogurt (fat-free, low-fat, reduced fat, whole)
  • Hard Cheeses (i.e., mozzarella, cheddar, Swiss)
  • Soft Cheeses (i.e., ricotta, cottage)
  • Processed Cheeses (i.e., American)
  • Puddings
  • Ice Cream and Frozen Yogurt
  • Calcium-fortified Soymilk

What health benefits do dairy foods provide?
Dairy products provide several nutrients essential for our bodies throughout our lifetimes.
Calcium & Vitamin D – Calcium is best known for its role in promoting strong bones and teeth. Americans’ #1 dietary source of calcium is dairy products, though low overall calcium intake is common among children > 9 years, adolescent girls, adult women, and adults > 51 years. Vitamin D is absorbed by our skin from the sun. Because of sun exposure risks and common vitamin D deficiencies, it is important for additional vitamin D to come from our diets—through such foods as dairy products. Together, calcium and vitamin D work to strengthen our bones and teeth. Because of this role, dairy intake is associated with decreased risk of osteoporosis—especially when milk products are adequately consumed during the prime bone-growing years (childhood and adolescence).
Potassium – This mineral works as an electrolyte within the body, counterbalancing sodium. Potassium helps to maintain a healthy blood pressure. Because of their high potassium contents and low sodium contents, ample consumption of dairy products is associated with lowered blood pressure.
Protein – Dairy foods provide high-quality protein, meaning the protein contains all nine essential amino acids needed by our bodies to maintain our cells, organs, muscles, and systems. This protein is made up of casein and whey—terms you may have heard of from Little Miss Muffet! Not only does protein maintain your body and functional abilities, but it also promotes satiety—meaning it helps you to feel full more quickly and stay full for longer compared to carbohydrates and fat. In other words, eating 6 oz. of Greek yogurt (14 grams protein) will satisfy you more than eating 6 oz. of applesauce (0 grams protein).

How many servings of dairy should I aim for each day?
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that those 9 years of age and older consume 3 servings of dairy each day. Toddlers (2-3 years) are advised to consume 2 servings, and children 4-8 years of age should consume 2.5 servings daily.

One serving of dairy is equal to:

  • 1 cup (8 fluid ounces) of milk or calcium-fortified soymilk
  • 1 cup (8 fluid ounces) of yogurt
  • 1.5 ounces hard cheese (about the size of two dominos pieces)
  • 2 ounces processed (American) cheese
  • 1/3 cup shredded cheese
  • 2 cups cottage cheese
  • ½ cup ricotta cheese
  • 1 cup frozen yogurt
  • 1½ cups ice cream
  • 1 cup pudding made with milk

You can certainly mix and match from the list above. While 4½ cups of ice cream would equal my 3 servings of dairy for the day—and would be delicious—it is not the healthiest way to meet my daily dairy goal. Instead, I may opt for 1 cup of Greek yogurt at breakfast, 1 slice of cheddar cheese (~0.75 ounces) on my lunchtime sandwich, 1 cup of skim milk with dinner, and ¾ cup of ice cream for a sweet treat. Perfect! 

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Why should I focus on low-fat (1%) and fat-free dairy foods?

Fat-free (skim) and low-fat (1%) versions of dairy foods are recommended to reduce calorie, fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol intake while still providing the same amounts of protein, potassium, calcium, magnesium, zinc, and vitamins as whole and reduced fat (2%) dairy products. Clarification: Fat-free and low-fat dairy products provide the same amount of good stuff as higher fat products, but with little-to-none of the bad stuff! High intakes of saturated fat and cholesterol are associated with increased cholesterol levels, particularly LDL cholesterol—considered the “bad” or “Lousy” cholesterol. High LDL cholesterol is further associated with increased risk of coronary heart disease (CHD). You can help to reduce your risk of high cholesterol and CHD by choosing fat-free or low-fat dairy milk, yogurt, cheese, and frozen desserts most often. Whether at the grocery store or dining out, these products are available most anywhere and can be found or requested easily!

How can I easily include dairy into my diet?
According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2010, most Americans do not consume the recommended amount of milk and milk products. How can we eat more to reach 3 servings per day without completely overhauling our daily diets?

  • Add fat-free or low-fat milk to oatmeal instead of water.
  • Swap out your morning coffee for a latte or cappuccino made with fat-free or low-fat milk.
  • Keep fat-free yogurt and low-fat string cheese in the fridge for an on-the-go snack.
  • Add fat-free or low-fat milk and/or yogurt to smoothies for a nutrient boost and a creamy flavor.
  • Indulge in a parfait made with fat-free or low-fat yogurt, berries, and granola.
  • Use plain fat-free or low-fat yogurt in place of sour cream, mayonnaise, or cream cheese in recipes.
  • Enjoy a small cone or dish of fat-free or low-fat ice cream, soft serve, or frozen yogurt when you are craving something sweet.
  • Drink fat-free or low-fat milk at mealtimes. Twelve ounces (1.5 cups) of skim milk is equivalent in calories to a 12 oz. can of regular cola, but provides good-for-you protein, calcium, vitamin D, and other vitamins and minerals—AND has 15 fewer grams of sugar!

What can I do to meet my dairy needs if I am lactose intolerant?
Do not despair! This intolerance is attributed to a deficiency of the enzyme lactase, which is needed to digest the sugar, lactose, found in milk and milk products. Most people with lactose intolerance are still able to consume some dairy products, though usually in smaller portions. Some dairy foods, like hard cheeses and yogurt, have less lactose than other products and are thus better tolerated. A wide variety of low-lactose and lactose-free products (milk, yogurt, ice cream, etc.) are available to consumers, all providing the same nutrient profile as regular milk products. Lactase can also be consumed in conjunction with regular dairy products to aid in their digestion—allowing for continued intake of these nutrient-rich foods. Calcium-fortified soymilk is yet another option, with this product not containing any lactose.

Are there alternatives to dairy foods if I am a vegan?
Some vegetarians choose to include dairy in their diets. This type of diet is called lacto-vegetarian. For vegetarians who do not consume dairy products and vegans (who consume no animal foods at all), calcium-fortified soymilk and products made from calcium-fortified soymilk are the best options for meeting the recommended 3 servings per day of dairy. Calcium-fortified foods (i.e., juices, cereals, almond milk, etc.), other soy foods, some beans, and some leafy greens provide calcium, but not in the quantities supplied by dairy products—making it difficult to meet recommended calcium needs. These foods also do not supply similar amounts of other nutrients like protein, vitamin D, and potassium as milk products. Therefore, it is important to be vigilant in consuming adequate intake of these nutrients from other sources.