Dairy foods are a good source of certain nutrients, such as bone-building calcium and phosphorus, as well as protein and vitamin A. But before you load up on milk and cheese, keep in mind that certain dairy foods are also quite high in saturated fat and calories. Some low-fat dairy foods deserve a place in your healthy eating plan because of the essential nutrients they offer, but you should limit certain other dairy foods to only an occasional indulgence.
Full-Fat Dairy Foods
Full-fat dairy foods are a good source of key nutrients, such as calcium and protein, but they also contain large amounts of saturated fat. For example, one cup of whole milk contains 4.5 grams of saturated fat, which is about one-fourth of your daily limit, while the same amount of 1 percent milk contains just 1.5 grams. The same goes with cheese. An ounce of regular cheddar cheese contains about 6 grams of saturated fat, while an ounce of reduced-fat cheese has 1.2 grams. Yogurt made with whole milk is also fattier than yogurt made with reduced-fat milk.
Desserts are unhealthy in general because they contain large amounts of added sugar, which increases your risk of weight gain, heart disease and dental decay. Dairy desserts, such as ice cream, frozen yogurt and pudding, are no exception. In addition to all that sugar, these desserts can also be high in saturated fat and calories. Soft-serve ice cream contains up to 200 calories and 6.4 grams of saturated fat per 1/2-cup serving, as well as upwards of 20 grams of added sugar, which is equal to about 5 teaspoons. That's almost the entire 6 teaspoons you should limit yourself to each day, according to MayoClinic.com. Frozen yogurt is slightly better with 110 calories and 2 grams of saturated fat per 1/2-cup serving, but you'll still get close to 18 grams of sugar, too.
Fried and Processed Dairy Foods
Fried dairy foods, such as mozzarella sticks and deep-fried curds, still supply some calcium and protein, but they're also quite high in fat and sodium. In fact, a typical serving of mozzarella sticks contains 763 calories, 16 grams of saturated fat and 1,842 milligrams of sodium. Cheese curds are no better in terms of fat and sodium. Processed cheese foods should be skipped because they don't have as many nutrients as real dairy foods and they're usually higher in fat and sodium, too. A slice of processed American cheese food contains 5.3 grams of fat and 270 milligrams of sodium. That same slice has just 143 milligrams of calcium compared to the over 200 milligrams in a slice of real cheese. Pass on oily nacho cheese dip, too. It contains very little actual cheese and is high in unhealthy saturated and trans fats, too.
Reduced-fat and fat-free dairy foods are the way to go in terms of their overall nutritional value. Opt for skim milk over 2 percent and whole versions. You'll get the same amount of protein and calcium, but you'll consume no fat. The same goes for cheese and yogurt. Opt for reduced-fat or fat-free versions to keep your intake of fat and calories lower. You might also seek out reduced-sodium cheese and low-sugar yogurt, which make these foods more nutritious, as well. Skip fake and fried dairy foods all together and have dairy desserts on a very occasional basis.
- MayoClinic.com: Fats: Choosing Healthy Dairy Products
- MyPlate.gov: Dairy
- MayoClinic.com: Added Sugar: Don't Get Sabotaged by Sweeteners
- American Heart Association: Eating Low-Fat Dairy Foods May Reduce Your Risk of Stroke
- U.S. Department of Agriculture: National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference
Sara Ipatenco has taught writing, health and nutrition. She started writing in 2007 and has been published in Teaching Tolerance magazine. Ipatenco holds a bachelor's degree and a master's degree in education, both from the University of Denver.