Reflecting on Dairy’s Role in DGA Healthy Eating Styles

April 12, 2016

Just like a smartphone offering more than one route to a destination or a Google search returning dozens of recipes on how to boil an egg, the new 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA) recognizes that no one style of eating fits all cultures, tastes, preferences or lifestyles.

The DGA puts forth three healthy eating styles designed to reduce the risk of diet-related chronic disease and help ensure nutrient adequacy: Healthy U.S.-Style Pattern, Healthy Vegetarian Eating Pattern and the Healthy Mediterranean-Style Pattern. If you are a health professional, you may already be using these eating patterns as guides to help individual clients plan meals according to their specific health goals, or to plan meals for schools, work sites or other community settings.

No matter which eating style you choose, dairy foods are a fundamental component. The DGA recommends three daily servings (cup-equivalents) of low-fat and fat-free dairy foods for those 9 years and older, two and a half servings (cup-equivalents) for children 4-8 years, and two for children 2-3 years in the Healthy U.S.-Style and the Healthy Vegetarian Style eating patterns.

The Healthy Mediterranean-Style eating plan contains two daily servings (cup-equivalents) of low-fat and fat-free dairy foods. Health outcomes of this eating plan have not been studied in children or adolescents, so the three servings (cup-equivalents) of dairy foods currently recommended for ages 9 to 18 years are not clearly specified within the pattern. Because the Mediterranean eating plan is lower in dairy foods than the other styles, it is also lower in calcium and vitamin D. It is the only one of the three modelled diets that doesn’t meet calcium or vitamin D recommendations for some groups, such as adolescents and elderly women. Adolescents may follow most of the recommendations in the Healthy Mediterranean-Style Pattern appropriate for their calorie needs, along with the rest of their family. But in order to meet nutrient needs they should consume the same amounts of dairy foods that are recommended in the Healthy U.S.-Style Pattern, which is three servings (cup-equivalents) a day.

Dairy foods, like milk, cheese and yogurt, not only are great tasting and available in multiple varieties, but they also provide important nutrients to the American diet. In fact, milk is the No. 1 food source of calcium and vitamin D in the diets of children and adults – and contains high-quality protein and significant amounts of potassium and phosphorus.

Dairy foods and the nutrients they contain are important for bone health throughout life, but especially in youth. The publication of a joint scientific statement on the lifestyle factors important for building peak bone mass reminds us how short the window is for building bones that must last a lifetime. The reviewers ranked calcium and physical activity as the most important lifestyle factors for peak bone mass development in youth.

Keeping that in mind, note that the DGA encourages health professionals to adapt healthy eating styles to the specific health needs of patients and clients. For example, adults who would like to embrace the Mediterranean lifestyle while still being good to their bones could enhance the meal plan by using Greek yogurt to dress salads, adding part-skim mozzarella cheese to salads and sandwiches, or using low-fat milk in lattes, smoothies or on its own as a beverage with a meal.

Check out our recipes for even more ways dairy foods can be used in healthy eating plans. These food ideas showcase the remarkable versatility of dairy foods and are great for everyone.

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