There are a lot of dairy alternatives available today. Since I know people who are lactose intolerant or have dairy allergies (and I’m sure you do too), I can appreciate how these options make their lives easier and more enjoyable. They don’t have to miss out on delicious foods that are made from dairy, plus the alternatives are typically lower in saturated fat.
Because of the lower fat content in these dairy alternatives, they are often marketed as being better for you than dairy. The manufacturers, and even some gurus in the health and fitness industry, would have you cut out dairy and use these alternatives instead. Well, I have a problem with that. First, because these alternatives are more expensive and I strongly dislike being told that in order to be healthy I need to buy items that are harder to find and cost more. Being healthy should not make life more complicated. Second, because dairy has many health benefits and anyone who says otherwise is lying.
While there is a place, maybe even a need, for dairy alternatives in your life, there is not sound reason to cut dairy out of your diet completely. Dairy is not evil. And unless you are intolerant or have allergies or sensitivities, it is not going to destroy your health; it is going to improve it. Dairy provides important nutrients that your body needs, such as calcium, potassium, vitamin D, and protein.
Let’s talk for a minute about what each of these nutrients do for your body.
- Calcium builds bone and teeth and maintains bone mass.
- Potassium helps maintain healthy blood pressure.
- Vitamin D maintains proper levels of calcium and phosphorous.
- Protein builds and repairs cells (organs, muscles, skin, hair, nails, bones, hormones)
Dairy is often put on the defense because it is high in saturated fat. Eating foods that are high in saturated fat and cholesterol can create health issues, such as heart disease and stroke. But before you say “No” to dairy, think about what you really want to avoid. It’s not the nutrients, it’s the fat. Even the fat may have its place in your diet, so instead of cutting it, limit your portions.
Use this chart as a reference when choosing which dairy products to include in your diet. It shows the grams of saturated fat and total calories in each serving, as well as what a serving size should actually be. (Spoiler alert: The servings are probably smaller than you think.)
For kids and youth, dairy is important to bone health and bone mass. Your kids are growing! Dairy is one of the primary sources of calcium in our diets and calcium is essential to bone health. Encourage your kids to drink / eat 3 cups of dairy each day. For adults, dairy is linked to a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes. It may even help lower blood pressure. So eat up! But choose low-fat options and eat the recommended serving size. Bear in mind that, if you follow a 2000 calorie diet, you should consume no more than 16g (144 calories) of saturated fat a day.
FitTip: Unless you are lactose intolerant or have milk allergies or sensitivities, there is no reason for you to replace dairy with dairy alternatives on a regular basis. If you need to use dairy alternatives, pay attention to the amount of calcium in them and compare it to the amount of calcium in dairy. If it’s less, make sure you include other sources of calcium in your diet. Also keep in mind that many of these alternatives lack the protein found in dairy. Whenever possible, choose low-fat dairy to get all the benefits without all the fat. When eating cheese, remember that a serving is about the size of 2-3 dice, and contains about 5g of saturated fat and 100 calories on average. Be smart about what types and how much dairy you consume, but do not cut it out of your diet completely. If you’re not sure what the best choice is for you, contact a registered nutritionist or dietitian and ask their advice.