Dairy Nutrition Facts


Verywell / Alexandra Shytsman

Dairy products include milk and products made from milk. Most of them are excellent sources of calcium and protein. In fact, because dairy is so high in calcium it's given its own food group on the USDA website.

What Counts as a Dairy Product?

Milk, cream, hard, and soft cheese are all classified as dairy. Butter comes from milk too, but since it's all fat with no calcium, it doesn't technically count as a dairy product.

In the United States, the majority of dairy products are made from cow's milk. You can also buy milk and cheese made from goat and sheep's milk.

Other dairy products made from milk include yogurt, pudding, ice cream, frozen yogurt, and flavored milk beverages. While these products are good sources of calcium, they can also be high in fat and sugar.

Make sure you count calories, know your serving sizes, and keep portions in check.

Are There Alternatives to Dairy Products?

Some people are allergic to milk or can't digest lactose (milk sugar) properly and need to avoid dairy products.

People who follow vegan diets also don't consume any dairy products because they come from animals.

Alternatives to traditional dairy products include soy milk and "cheese" products, nut "milk" made from almonds or cashews, and products made with rice and oat "milk."

Dairy alternatives don't necessarily have the same nutritional profile as milk and other dairy products, but they're often fortified with calcium and vitamin D.

Nutrients Found in Dairy Products

Dairy products are high in calcium, protein, and potassium. Dairy also provides magnesium. Milk is often fortified with other important nutrients like vitamin D and sometimes vitamin A.

Milk products can be high in fat, including saturated fats, though you can choose low-fat and not-fat versions. Dairy products like ice cream, flavored milk, and flavored yogurt can be high in added sugar.

If you don't consume dairy products, you can still get plenty of calcium from other sources like dark leafy green vegetables such as kale, bok choy and broccoli, canned fish (with bones), soybeans, or the dairy substitutes mentioned earlier.

Non-dairy food sources of calcium are not necessarily good sources of vitamin D. In fact, very few foods contain vitamin D. If you don't drink milk and don't get much sunlight exposure, ask your doctor if you need a vitamin D supplement.

If you're looking for more protein, you'll find plenty in meat, poultry, fish, legumes, nuts, and seeds. Many fruits and vegetables are excellent sources of potassium.

Health Benefits of Dairy Products

Calcium is essential for building and maintaining bones. Some studies have shown that regular consumption of dairy products is associated with bone health and may help reduce your risk for weakened bones (osteoporosis) but study results are mixed.

In addition to strong bones, your body also needs calcium for healthy muscle and nerve function, as well as blood clotting.

Most dairy products and many dairy alternatives are fortified with vitamin D because your body needs vitamin D to absorb calcium properly (though you don't need to eat calcium-rich foods at the same time as vitamin D to get the effect).

Research has shown that consumption of dairy is associated with a reduced risk of heart disease, stroke and possibly type 2 diabetes.

Some research also shows that consumption of milk and dairy products does not adversely affect body weight or body composition in children and adolescents. In fact, authors of one study noted that there seems to be a beneficial relationship between the consumption of milk and/or calcium and body weight and body composition in children and adolescents.

Recommended Servings of Dairy Per Day

The daily dietary recommendation for dairy products is based on your age and calcium needs.

How Much Milk Should You Drink?

Toddlers (ages two to three years) need two cups of milk per day.

Children (ages four to eight years) need about two and a half cups of milk per day.

Older children over the age of eight years, teens, and adults should consume at least three cups of milk every day.

It's important to remember that not all dairy products are equal. The nutritional value of a cup of milk is not the same as that of a cup of cheese or ice cream. Also, Greek yogurt is lower in calcium than regular yogurt.

To address the variation, the USDA translates dairy product serving sizes into cup equivalents.

Each cup equivalent counts toward your daily dairy product recommendation (just be sure to note that calories counts can vary):

  • 8 ounces of yogurt
  • 1 1/2 ounces of hard cheese 
  • 2 slices of hard cheese
  • 1/3 cup shredded cheese
  • 2 ounces of processed cheese (American cheese)
  • 2 cups cottage cheese
  • 1 cup frozen yogurt
  • 1 1/2 cup ice cream
  • 1 cup soy milk

Incorporating Dairy into Your Diet

Here are some easy ways to incorporate dairy products into your daily diet.

  • Drink milk with a meal
  • Add milk to cereal at breakfast
  • Sprinkle shredded cheddar cheese on your salad or vegetable side dish
  • Eat yogurt as a snack with fresh berries, chopped nuts and a little honey
  • Grate parmesan cheese on top of popcorn
  • Add a slice of cheese to a sandwich
  • Serve cheese with fresh fruit as an appetizer
  • Top leafy greens with cottage cheese and tomato wedges

You can also make healthy meals that use dairy products as ingredients. Here are a few tasty recipes to try at home.

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Article Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Malmir H, Larijani B, Esmaillzadeh A.  Consumption of milk and dairy products and risk of osteoporosis and hip fracture: a systematic review and Meta-analysis. Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition. 2019 doi: 10.1080/10408398.2019.1590800

  2. Thorning, T. K., Raben, A., Thorning, T., Soedamah-Muthu, S. S., Givens, I., Astrup, A. Milk and dairy products: good or bad for human health? An assessment of the totality of scientific evidence. Food & Nutrition Research60. (2016) doi: 10.3402/fnr.v60.32527

  3. Spence LA, Cifelli CJ, Miller GD. The role of dairy products in healthy weight and body composition in children and adolescentsCurr Nutr Food Sci. 2011;7(1):40–49. doi:10.2174/157340111794941111

Additional Reading
  • Thorning TK, Raben A, Tholstrup T, Soedamah-Muthu SS, Givens I, Astrup A. "Milk and Dairy Products: Good or Bad for Human Health? An Assessment of the Totality of Scientific Evidence." Food Nutr Res. 2016 Nov 22;60:32527.
  • United States Department of Agriculture. "All About the Dairy Group."