Health benefits associated with dairy foods extend far beyond building and maintaining healthy bones and teeth. Having enough milk, yoghurt and cheese can also be good for heart health, blood pressure and maintaining a healthy weight.
Milk, cheese and yoghurt are naturally full of important nutrients such as calcium and protein. The unique package of vitamins and minerals they provide means these dairy products pack some pretty important health benefits.
In fact, the Australian Dietary Guidelines say that consumption of milk, cheese and yoghurt is linked to a reduced risk of heart disease, stroke, hypertension, type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome and colorectal cancer – some of the main causes of death in Australia.
Here are some of the key health benefits associated with eating dairy foods.
A growing body of research supports the role of gut health in overall health and wellbeing. Some fermented foods contain probiotics; active bacterial cultures with unique characteristics that allow them to survive in the gastrointestinal tract. When consumed in adequate amounts, they provide a health benefit and have the potential to maintain the natural balance of the gut microbiota.
Fermented dairy products such as yoghurt, culture drinks and kefir are some of the most common and easily available sources of probiotics. These products are an ideal vehicle for probiotics as the composition of milk (which includes carbohydrate, protein and fat) acts as a protective matrix to help the survival of probiotics from the digestive system through to the gut, including helping them survive the adverse conditions of the stomach.
Bones are living tissue, constantly in a state of renewal, so building and maintaining bones from childhood through to elderly age is important. The key ingredients for strong bones for life include weight bearing exercise, calcium-rich foods such as milk, cheese and yoghurt, as well as vitamin D from safe sun exposure.
Not looking after bones can increase the risk of osteoporosis, a disease where bones become brittle and are at high risk of fracture. In Australia, osteoporosis affects one in two women and one in three men over the age of 60. Bone health is determined by both genetics and lifestyle factors, and adopting a bone-friendly lifestyle at any age can help reduce the risk of osteoporosis.
Achieving dental health involves more than just the right oral hygiene. Healthy nutrition and eating habits also help to keep teeth healthy. Dairy foods have a specific role to play in dental health as they contain a unique combination of special anti-decay nutrients such as calcium, phosphorus and the protein, casein.
Milk has been linked to reduced risk of cavities, making it a good drink choice between meals, and hard cheese has been linked to decreased risk of dental cavities and erosion. The Australian Dental Association recommends eating a small piece of cheese after consuming sugary food or drink to help protect teeth and reduce the risk of tooth decay.
Maintaining a healthy body weight is a matter of balancing the energy (kilojoules from food) taken in with the energy used (kilojoules burned) through daily activities or exercise.
When trying to lose weight through a calorie-controlled diet, studies show that including at least three serves of milk, yoghurt or cheese a day can help people lose more weight, more centimetres from the waist and more body fat compared to people who ate fewer serves of dairy foods.
Muscle mass and hydration
It is well known that having protein after working out helps build lean muscle mass, but not all proteins are equally effective. There’s a reason the proteins found in milk – whey and casein – are the most commonly used in nutrition supplements designed for maintaining or growing muscle mass.
Milk contains high-quality proteins that provide all the essential amino acids needed to build and maintain muscle mass. Milk’s unique blend of casein and whey contain amino acids in a pattern similar to muscle protein. Casein is a slow-to-digest and slow-release protein which has been shown to reduce muscle breakdown. Whey is a fast-acting and quick-absorbing protein with a high concentration of leucine – a branched chain amino acid. Leucine specifically stimulates the building of new muscle tissue.
Milk also assists with rehydration after exercise by replacing fluid and electrolytes (sodium and potassium) in the right balance. Other nutrients in milk, like protein, help the body to retain fluid more effectively.
Reducing the risks of diseases
Dairy products play an important role in maintaining a healthy diet and reducing the risk of serious diseases. The following are just a few examples:
- A healthy lifestyle and diet can help reduce your risk of heart disease, and studies show that people who regularly consume milk, cheese and yoghurt are more likely to have a reduced risk of heart disease than those who don’t.
- A healthy diet including a variety of foods from the five food groups such as fruit, vegetables and milk, cheese and yoghurt can help you manage your blood pressure. Additionally, multiple studies indicate that three daily serves of milk, yoghurt and cheese is linked to a reduced risk of hypertension.
- The Australian Cancer Council states: "Overall the proven health benefits of dairy foods outweigh the unproven harms". The Australian Dietary Guidelines state that foods from the dairy food group and lined to a reduced risk of colorectal cancer..
- A review which combined the effects of 16 separate studies and over 520,000 people, found higher intakes of all varieties of milk, yoghurt and cheese was linked to a 11% reduction in the risk of type 2 diabetes compared to people eating less dairy foods.