Dairy foods can play an important role in every stage of life. Low-fat and fat-free dairy foods, like milk, cheese and yogurt, provide a unique package of essential nutrients that are important for growth, development and overall health throughout one’s life – and some play key roles at certain stages.
The first 1,000 days of life (conception through age 2) are an important window for overall growth and development. Fetal development can be affected by what the mother eats, and adequate nutrition during this time period is crucial. During pregnancy, getting enough calcium and particularly vitamin D is important to help the baby's bones grow.
While infants under the age of 1 year old are recommended to drink breast milk or formula, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, yogurt and cheese can be gradually introduced to children after 6 months of age depending on the child’s developmental readiness cues. At 1 year, adding whole milk can help provide important nutrients needed for brain growth. Whole milk is recommended until the age of 2, after this, reduced-fat milk can be offered. However, if the child is overweight or obese, reduced-fat or fat-free milk can be offered between 12 months of age and their second birthday.
According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA), which covers ages 2 and older, dairy foods are linked to improved bone health in children and adolescents. Two servings a day for ages 2-3, and 2 1/2 servings a day for ages 4-8 helps provide nutrients needed for strong bones (calcium, vitamin D and protein) and can help decrease future fracture risk.
Peak bone mass is reached by the end of the second decade of life. Bone mass attained during early childhood and adolescents is thought to be the most important modifiable risk factor for future bone health. Peak bone mass is dependent on adequate calcium and vitamin D consumption and physical activity, among other lifestyle factors, during childhood and adolescence. Three servings of dairy foods per day can help provide those ages 9 and older with the nutrients they need to help achieve peak bone mass.
Dairy foods are still important for adult’s bones, too, and they have also been linked to a decreased risk of cardiovascular disease and Type 2 diabetes. Three servings of dairy foods are included as part of the DGA’s Healthy U.S. style eating pattern and the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet, which align closely. Individuals who followed the DASH diet had lower blood pressure, lower LDL-cholesterol and a decreased risk for cardiovascular diseases.
As part of healthy aging, three servings of dairy foods a day can help provide a high-quality source of protein to help maintain muscle mass and strength. Maintenance of strength is considered an indicator of long term health and can increase quality of life. In addition, milk and yogurt can be easy to consume sources of protein for individuals who may have difficulty chewing.
Read more on the importance of dairy at different stages of life:
Here’s a closer look at the nutritional benefits of milk for kids.