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A Case(in) for Dairy

Buttery, creamy, cheesy...

Three adjectives you must completely give up when you are trying to lose weight.


Well, not entirely. Today, I'm going to make the case for dairy and hopefully convince you that there's no need to cut out this entire food group.

First, let's consider that dairy is not full of empty calories, though it can be calorie-dense. In fact, dairy has nine essential nutrients (RD note: "essential" in nutrition-speak means that your body cannot create these nutrients, and therefore we must consume them one way or another), which include the following:

Calcium (important for bones and teeth)

Vitamin D (which is actually a hormone that helps our bodies absorb calcium. Convenient that the two are packaged together in dairy!)

Phosphorus (also important for bone health)

Riboflavin, Niacin, Pantothenic Acid, and Cobalamin (vitamins B2, B3, B5, and B12 respectively, needed for metabolism. B12 has an added bonus of contributing to nerve health!)

Vitamin A (contributes to vision, immune system, and even healthy skin!)

...and finally, PROTEIN.

Yes, dairy products are often an excellent source of protein. This is known by some body builders who use whey protein, which is derived from milk! Casein is the main protein found in milk, in which some are allergic. On that note, lactose intolerance is not an allergy, but rather that the person is lacking enough lactase (an enzyme that breaks down lactose in the body so that it does not cause the unwanted side effects of those who suffer from lactose intolerance). Some dairy products are naturally lower in lactose, but there are also lactase supplements on the market for those who would still like to partake of dairy regularly. Please talk to your doctor if this is an issue for you so that they may suggest the most appropriate supplement.

With so many nutritious elements and the added value of delicious-ness... Why does dairy get such a bad wrap? Well, it comes down to the fat content of many dairy products. For instance, did you know that the ONLY difference between whole milk (also known as Vitamin D milk) and skim milk is the fat content? There is no more vitamin D in whole milk compared to skim milk. Whole milk is around 3.5% fat, making an 8 oz glass 150 calories. At the same portion size, 2% milk is 120 calories, 1% milk is 100 calories, and skim milk is 80 calories. Therefore, by simply switching from whole milk to skim milk, you can reduce your calories by almost half without compromising the nutrition!

This simple example of how fat content greatly effects the calories of dairy is the only consideration that needs to be made. Here are some of my dairy hacks that allow me to include this key player in tasty nutrition:

Non-fat plain Greek yogurt in place of sour cream. I prefer the Fage brand. Seriously, I bet that neither you nor your pickiest family member can tell the difference! From topping baked potatoes to tacos, this is my favorite dairy hack which adds no calories from fat but remains high in protein. I also find that it tastes richer than fat free sour cream.

Light&Fit Greek yogurt for breakfast or a snack. I prefer the coconut vanilla flavor and often add seeds, nuts, oats, or fruit to it. With just 80 calories and 12 grams of protein, this is an affordable and convenient way to fuel yourself.

Fat free cream cheese. The taste and texture are different on this one and you might choose to use reduced-fat cream cheese or Neufchatel. I don't mind the fat free version, though, and love to add everything bagel seasoning to it for a guilt-free veggie dip. I also like to mix in some goat cheese, roasted red peppers, and shredded spinach as a wrap spread.

Cheeses made with part skim milk. Ahhh... cheese. Cheese might very well be my favorite food on this planet, but it should definitely be used sparingly. Why? Well, because one to one-and-a-half ounce/s is considered a serving size... One ounce of cheese is the equivalent of a pair of dice. I have not found a fat free cheese that I like (including cottage cheese- I still prefer 2%), but settle on reduced fat. Cheese is often high in sodium as well, so try to seek those out that are low-sodium (RD note: sodium does not add calories, therefore often gets overlooked by dieters for weight loss. In a future post, I will explain why it is important to limit sodium intake.). Common cheeses that are easier to find lower fat (therefore lower calorie) that still taste great include: feta, mozzarella, and goat cheese. Cheese should be either lightly sprinkled on top of a dish or sliced very thin, as moderation is key for this calorie-dense delight.

Butter. This one I cannot compromise on with a lower-fat alternative, but know that there are plenty of choices out there! I just choose to use very small amounts of real butter, but not for a nutrition reason... simply for taste. If you've heard that margarine is bad, it is because years ago they used to create it with artificial trans fat that would make liquid vegetable oil more solid and spreadable. Once the scientific community learned that these fats were contributing significantly to heart disease and stroke risk, many margarine companies changed how they processed their products. You can find plenty of "0 grams trans fat" options that you might not be able to believe are not butter!

The take-away here is that dairy products are not evil and are not forbidden when trying to eat healthier or lose weight. Simply watch out for fat and sodium content and pay attention to the serving size.

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