The U.S. Department of Agriculture considers the five main food groups, including fruits, vegetables, grains, protein foods and dairy, to be the building blocks of a healthy diet. In addition to providing protein and potassium, foods in the dairy group are generally high in calcium and fortified with vitamin D, two nutrients that support bone health. The USDA recommends that most adults consume 3 cups worth of foods from the dairy group each day.
The dairy group includes all types of liquid dairy milk. Whether you drink fat-free, low-fat, reduced fat, whole, lactose-reduced or lactose-free milk, an 8-ounce glass counts as a 1-cup serving of dairy toward your total daily intake. Although they tend to be high in added sugars, the USDA includes flavored milks in the dairy group because they’re rich in calcium. An 8-ounce glass of fortified, reduced-fat milk provides 122 calories, 8 grams of protein and just over 12 grams of sugar, as well as 30 percent and 29 percent of the daily values for vitamin D and calcium, respectively. By comparison, 8 ounces of fortified, reduced-fat chocolate milk has 50 percent more calories, slightly less protein and calcium, the same amount of vitamin D and double the amount of sugar.
While many nondairy milk beverages are fortified with calcium, the USDA counts only calcium-fortified soymilk as part of the dairy group, largely because it provides an amount and quality of protein comparable to that of dairy milk. An 8-ounce glass of calcium-fortified soymilk counts as a 1-cup serving of dairy. This amount of fortified, unsweetened soymilk provide 80 calories, 7 grams of protein, 1 gram of sugar and 30 percent each of the daily values for calcium and vitamin D. An 8-ounce glass of chocolate soymilk has almost double the calories and almost 20 times the amount of sugar as unsweetened varieties, according to the USDA. Whether sweetened or plain, soymilk also provides about 1 gram of fiber per serving.
An 8-ounce container of yogurt is equivalent to 1 cup of dairy, just as a smaller 4-ounce serving counts as 1/2 cup of dairy. The USDA recommends choosing fat-free or low-fat yogurt, but as with dairy milk and fortified soymilk, sweetened yogurt tends to be significantly higher in calories and sugar than plain yogurt. Per 8-ounce container, unsweetened low-fat yogurt provides about 143 calories, 12 grams of protein, 16 grams of sugar and almost 42 percent of the daily value for calcium. The same amount of low-fat vanilla yogurt supplies 50 more calories, slightly less protein and calcium and more than double the amount of sugar.
The calcium content of cheese varies by type. Cottage cheese is lower in calcium than most other cheeses. A 1-cup serving of low-fat cottage cheese counts as just 1/2 cup of dairy and provides 194 calories, almost 27 grams of protein and nearly 21 percent of the daily value for calcium. A slice of cheddar cheese, which provides 113 calories, 7 grams of protein and 20 percent of the daily value for calcium, is also equivalent to 1/2 cup of dairy. A 1/2 cup of ricotta cheese and 1/3 cup of shredded cheese are both equivalent to 1 cup of dairy, while a slice of American or other processed cheese equals 1/3 cup of dairy. Because cream cheese provides very little calcium, it’s not included in the dairy group.
The USDA also includes desserts made from milk or calcium-fortified soymilk in the dairy group. A 1-cup serving of pudding or frozen yogurt qualifies as 1 cup of dairy. Per cup, chocolate frozen yogurt provides 221 calories, about 5 grams of protein, 33.5 grams of sugar and 17 percent of the daily value for calcium. One scoop of ice cream equals 1/3 cup of dairy, according to the USDA, so you need to eat 1 1/2 cups of ice cream to get the equivalent of 1 cup of dairy. A 1-1/2-cup serving of vanilla ice cream has 411 calories, about 7 grams of protein, 42 grams of sugar and 25 percent of the daily value for calcium.
- MyPlate.gov: What Foods Are Included in the Dairy Group?
- MyPlate.gov: How Much Food from the Dairy Group Is Needed Daily?
- MyPlate.gov: What Counts as a Cup in the Dairy Group?
- MyPlate.gov: Health Benefits and Nutrients
- MyPlate.gov: Tips For Making Wise Choices in the Dairy Group
- USDA Nutrient Data Laboratory: Foods List
Based just outside Chicago, Meg Campbell has worked in the fitness industry since 1997. She’s been writing health-related articles since 2010, focusing primarily on diet and nutrition. Campbell divides her time between her hometown and Buenos Aires, Argentina.