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WVU Extension expert explains dairy health benefits

Milk being poured into a handled glass mug.

From milk to yogurt, dairy products — the focus of National Dairy Month — pack necessary nutrients that are essential to a balanced diet, according to a WVU Extension expert. (WVU Photo)

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To mark National Dairy Month, a West Virginia University expert is sharing insights on the health benefits of dairy.

Cindy Fitch, WVU Extension associate dean of research, is available to discuss how to incorporate dairy into a balanced diet and how plant-based alternatives — which have grown in popularity in recent years — shape up against the real thing.


“Some dairy products, such as butter, cream and ice cream, add sugar or flavorings and do not provide many nutrients. However, milk, cheese and yogurt provide essential nutrients and can contribute to a healthy, balanced eating pattern. All three contain high-quality proteins that have all the building blocks our bodies need to build and repair tissues such as muscle, skin and vital organs.

“Dairy also provides zinc, potassium and magnesium — essential minerals that are often low in American diets. Milk and yogurt are good sources of vitamin D, which few other foods provide. They are also good sources of calcium and phosphorus in forms that are well absorbed. Getting enough calcium and phosphorus is particularly important for growing children, as childhood and adolescence are the best times to build strong bones for life.

“You can incorporate more dairy into your meal plan in a variety of tasty ways. Hot cereal lovers can use milk as the cooking liquid instead of water. Yogurt with granola or cheese with whole wheat crackers make nourishing snacks. Adding milk or yogurt to a smoothie can bump up the nutritional value. As you look for ways to add milk or yogurt to your day, be careful not to add extra sugar. Instead, look for natural sweetness from fruits.

“Over the past several years, a variety of plant-based milk alternatives have become readily available. Infants should not receive anything but breast milk or infant formula. At one year of age, a toddler can graduate to whole cow’s milk. The nutrients in milk, including the saturated fat in whole milk, are important for growth and development. Soy milk fortified with calcium and vitamin D is considered the closest alternative to cow’s milk and may be appropriate for children with a dairy allergy.

“Other than soy milk, most plant-based milk alternatives are lower in protein and several important vitamins and minerals, and they often have added sugars. However, they contain different types of carbohydrates and other plant compounds that may be beneficial for adults. When choosing your beverage, use the nutrition facts label to compare the amount of protein, added sugars, fat and calories to determine what best meets your nutrition goals.” — Cindy Fitch, associate dean of research, WVU Extension

West Virginia University experts can provide commentary, insights and opinions on various news topics. Search for an expert by name, title, area of expertise, or college/school/department in the Experts Database at WVUToday.



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