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Milk and milk alternatives contain such important nutrients as calcium, vitamins A, D and B12, riboflavin, zinc and magnesium, as well as protein. However, a Statistics Canada nutrition survey showed that most Canadians do not get the recommended daily number of servings (two to three, depending on age). Regular exercise and calcium-rich, non-dairy foods are also good bone-builders, but consuming milk and milk alternatives is considered one of the easiest ways of ensuring an adequate daily intake of calcium and other essential nutrients.

Calcium plays many roles in maintaining overall health, and there is no debate that milk and milk alternatives provide an excellent supply of the amount required to help maintain strong, healthy bones. We absorb calcium from the foods we eat, making such calcium-rich choices as sardines and salmon with bones, almonds and dried figs an important part of a healthy diet. Easily absorbed sources like milk and its alternatives are a beneficial choice, both for children who require calcium to build a healthy skeleton and for adults who gradually lose their ability to absorb calcium effectively. When food choices do not provide an adequate supply of calcium, the body takes it from our bones, increasing the risk of osteoporosis, a disease resulting in fragile bones that break easily.

The calcium in milk and milk alternatives also plays a role in controlling blood pressure. According to Debra Reid, a registered dietitian and board member with Blood Pressure Canada, a not-for-profit organization, milk and milk products are important ingredients in the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) eating plan. The DASH diet is a balanced eating plan designed to lower blood pressure. It endorses daily servings of milk and dairy products as good sources of the calcium, potassium and magnesium that can help reduce the risk of hypertension.

Aging affects more than our ability to absorb calcium and build strong bones. Because the need for vitamin D increases after the age of 50, Health Canada recommends that everyone over the age of 50 drink three cups (500 mL) of fluid milk every day, plus take a daily vitamin D supplement of 400 IU. Fortified soy beverages are good alternatives for people who don't drink milk. Not all soy beverages are fortified, though, so check product labels to be sure.

It can be difficult for people who are lactose intolerant to get enough calcium. Lactose intolerance is a condition that prevents the body from making enough of the enzyme needed to digest lactose, the natural sugar in milk products. Individuals can tolerate varying amounts of lactose, including small amounts of lactose-reduced milk, cheese or yogurt. Lactaid tablets or drops help break down the lactose in dairy products. Yogurt may cause fewer symptoms than milk and is also a good source of calcium and nutrients. Having milk products with meals rather than on an empty stomach is also helpful.

Quick Tip

Dehydration can make you feel tired, weak, irritable or dizzy. Canada's Food Guide recommends satisfying your thirst with water or lower-fat milk. Limit drinks that pack extra calories, fat, sodium, sugar and caffeine. Sodas, fruit beverages, specialty coffees and sports drinks can add calories to your diet without contributing vitamins and minerals.

How much is a serving?

Milk: 1 cup (250 mL)
Firm cheese: 1½ oz (50 g)
Cottage cheese: 1 cup (250 mL)
Yogurt: ¾ cup (175 g)
Yogurt drink: 200 mL

Recipe featured in this article:

Cheryl Turnbull-Bruce is a Sobeys Registered Dietitian.

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