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Dairy foods

4-minute read

Dairy foods such as milk, cheese and yoghurt are rich in many essential vitamins and minerals — calcium, in particular. As part of a balanced diet, dairy contributes to strong bones and helps you stay healthy. If you're not able to, or choose not to, consume dairy, you can get calcium from other foods and, if necessary, from a supplement.

What are dairy foods?

Most dairy foods come from cow's milk, although some are made from the milk of sheep, goats and other animals. Milk, cheese and yoghurt are popular and accessible dairy foods, and are very good sources of many nutrients.

Dairy foods vary in fat content. For example, milk comes in 'full fat' (3.5% fat), 'low fat' (less than 1.5% fat) and 'skim' (less than 0.15% fat).

Why you need dairy

Dairy foods provide many nutrients, including:

Calcium is essential both for children and adults, as it helps to grow strong bones.

Dairy foods can also help reduce blood pressure, and the risk of heart disease, stroke and some cancers.

How to get more dairy in your diet

The recommended daily number of serves of milk, yoghurt and cheese (or alternatives) for a healthy diet will depend on a person’s age and sex. One serve of dairy is equivalent to:

  • 1 cup (250ml) of milk
  • ¾ cup (200g) of yoghurt
  • 2 slices (40g) of hard cheese
  • ½ cup (120g) of ricotta cheese
  • 1 cup calcium-enriched soy, rice or other cereal milk (with at least 100mg calcium per 100ml)

Here are the recommended daily number of serves of milk, yoghurt and cheese (or alternatives) for a healthy diet.

Adults

  • Women aged over 50 — 4 serves
  • Pregnant women — 3 ½
  • Breastfeeding women — 4
  • Men aged over 70 — 3½ serves
  • All other adults — 2 ½ serves

Children and adolescents

  • Toddlers aged 1-2 years — 1-1½
  • Girls aged 2-8 — 1-1½
  • Girls aged 9-11 — 3
  • Boys aged 2-3 — 1½
  • Boys aged 4-8 — 2
  • Boys aged 9-11 — 2½
  • All teenagers — 3½

Babies up to 12 months should drink breast milk or formula, not milk from cows (or other animals). Dairy alternatives are not suitable as milk substitutes for children under 2 years of age.

Here are some tips for adding more dairy to your diet:

  • Include cheese in sandwiches or wraps.
  • Drink milk- or yoghurt-based smoothies.
  • Sprinkle cheese on pasta.
  • Dollop natural yoghurt on a jacket potato.
  • Enjoy a warm glass of low-fat milk after dinner.

Alternatives to dairy

Some people avoid dairy because they:

If you don't consume dairy, it's important to get the nutrition you need, especially calcium, from other sources. This is particularly important for children, who need plenty of calcium for their bones to grow properly.

It's also a good idea to see a health professional, such as a dietitian or nutritionist, for advice and to find out whether you should take a calcium supplement.

Non-dairy sources of calcium include:

  • calcium-enriched soy, rice and oat drinks (1 cup equals 1 serve of dairy)
  • almonds (100g equals 1 serve)
  • firm tofu (100g equals 1 serve, although it can vary between brands)
  • tinned sardines (60g equals 1 serve) and salmon with bones (100g equals 1 serve)
  • green vegetables, such as bok choy, kale and broccoli
  • calcium-fortified breakfast cereal, bread or juice

Note that the calcium in green vegetables is not as easily absorbed by your body as the calcium in dairy.

Dairy and food safety

Pasteurisation is the process that kills potentially harmful bacteria found in raw milk and raw milk products. Pregnant women, the elderly and people with an impaired immune system should not eat unpasteurised dairy products (or soft cheeses, such as brie and ricotta), which are more likely to contain bacteria, including Listeria.

You should also avoid giving babies and toddlers unpasteurised milk.

Dairy food should be handled and stored following food safety guidelines. For example, keep it in your fridge at or below 5°C. Avoid consuming dairy foods after their 'use by' date — even if they smell or look OK.

For more information

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Last reviewed: July 2019

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