Don’t Forget: Dairy Foods Have Protein, Too

September 22, 2016

From a pyramid to a plate visual food guides have evolved to help people better understand the Dietary Guidelines for Americans and how to build a healthy eating plan.

MyPlate, the current USDA food guide, shows five different food groups from which Americans are encouraged to eat on a regular basis: dairy, vegetables, fruits, grains and protein. Because dairy has its own food group, health and wellness professionals may need to educate people about its high-quality protein.

MyPlate shows that the protein group includes foods such as meat, poultry, beans, seafood and eggs. Yet, dairy foods (milk, cheese, yogurt) also serve as an important source of high-quality protein in the American diet, contributing approximately one-fifth of the protein in the U.S. diet.

Dairy foods do have a unique nutrient profile that merit their distinction from the other protein sources on MyPlate:

  • Milk provides nine essential nutrients: protein, calcium, pantothenic acid, phosphorus, niacin, riboflavin, and vitamins A, B12, and D.
  • Milk is the number one food source of calcium, vitamin D and potassium -- nutrients of public health concern -- in the diets of both children and adults in the U.S.
  • Dairy foods provide around 67 percent calcium, 64 percent vitamin D and 21 percent of the potassium consumed by Americans.
  • In terms of quality, milk is considered a high-quality protein source as it contains all nine essential amino acids in a bioavailable and digestible form.

Milk’s high-quality protein and relatively affordable cost also make them important for vulnerable populations, including children and older adults. Milk is the primary source of protein for children (based on the foods they eat), a population that can benefit from adequate protein to help maintain healthy muscles and bones. High-quality protein foods like milk, cheese and yogurt are also important for older adults, who also need to eat adequate protein.

As health and wellness professionals, we educate people that although dairy foods may not belong in the “protein” group of MyPlate, they provide important nutrients, including protein, to the American diet. 


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