By Cassidy Hobbs Hall
Area Agent, Family and Consumer Sciences
Johnston County Cooperative Extension
March is National Nutrition Month. So far this year, we have explored meal planning, eating more fruits and vegetables, as well as choosing the right sources of carbohydrates. This week, I want to discuss a couple of specific nutrients that Americans aren’t getting enough of and current “trendy” eating patterns may be contributing to the worsening of this issue.
Vitamins have been all the rave ever since COVID-19 began, which isn’t a bad thing; however, they can potentially be a waste of money. Megadoses of vitamins can’t fully be absorbed by the body and are excreted. In fact, healthy people who eat a varied diet of fruits, vegetables, whole grains or fortified grains, beans, low-fat dairy, and lean proteins such as lean beef, poultry, and fish actually get enough vitamins and minerals through food. This method of meeting your vitamin intake is recommended. There may be times when your physician recommends a supplement, but that is very specific to the individual and based on a variety of factors. One supplement that may be recommended to you is calcium and vitamin D.
Ninety percent of Americans are not consuming enough calcium through foods and beverages. We need the complement of vitamin D in order for our body to properly utilize calcium. The “dairy-free” trend that Americans have been on for years is certainly not helping this problem. Dairy foods and beverages are critical for healthy bones, muscles, and teeth, especially as children grow and bone density is established later in life. Consuming enough dairy foods and beverages helps to prevent osteoporosis. Vitamin D has been associated with better immune function, lower risk of type 2 diabetes, and these food sources contain a variety of other nutrients that are essential for good health. Those with darker skin color do not absorb as much vitamin D from the sun and are most at risk of a deficiency.
In addition to these benefits, many health influencers are quick to recommend yogurt as a healthy breakfast or snack due to its protein content, availability of low-fat options, and the potential health benefits of probiotics; however, when it comes to other dairy products, foodies are quick to show off their “dairy-free” beverages and recipes. If we are quick to endorse yogurt, why are so many people hopping on the bandwagon of giving up real milk for almond and oat milk alternatives?
Many of these milk alternatives do not provide the same amount of protein per serving as real milk, lack necessary nutrients and must be fortified, and often include many added sugars. When you compare the calories per serving of milk alternatives to skim milk, both options are low in calories and fat but similar in texture; however, real milk is usually about half the cost and contains more protein and is less processed. If you were to compare whole milk to a milk alternative, the calories and saturated fat content are far higher in whole milk, but comparing whole milk to milk alternatives is not exactly a fair game because low-fat dairy is the recommendation. The next time you are examining dairy milk and milk alternatives, compare the nutrition label and ingredients. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend 2-3 servings of low-fat dairy per day. The Mediterranean Diet, which is the eating pattern with the most long-term research and proven health benefits, also includes 1-2 servings of low-fat dairy per day. To be transparent, a serving is considered one cup of milk, including fortified soymilk, or yogurt. One and a half ounces of cheese is also considered a serving.
Due to the lack of calcium in the average American diet, foods such as soy milk, some almond milks, and orange juice are now fortified with calcium. If a person is allergic to dairy, fortified milk alternatives are a good option in cases when real milk products can’t be consumed. If lactose intolerance is a problem you face, lactose-free dairy options are available, which contain an enzyme to breakdown lactose for you. While Americans do need to consume more calcium-rich foods, it is important to choose low-fat options as whole dairy products are high in saturated fat; the American Heart Association recommends limiting saturated fat for improved heart-health and a lower risk of heart-related illnesses. You can incorporate more calcium-rich foods and beverages into your diet by choosing low-fat dairy milk, adding low-fat cheese to broccoli and other dishes, serving low-fat cheese or yogurt as snacks, and choosing milk-based desserts, such as pudding, when you splurge. The point? Low-fat cheese, yogurt, and dairy milk actually are part of a healthy and nutritious diet!
Be on the lookout for our next discussion on how purchasing locally grown foods can benefit your health and community.”