Dairy’s Role in Healthy Eating Patterns Reinforced by Dietary Guidelines in the US

Heidi Harkopf, MS, RD | Director, Nutrition Programs| View Author Bio

The 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA) released on December 29, 2020 recognize dairy as a core, nutrient-dense element of health dietary patterns that help Americans achieve and maintain good health while reducing the risk of chronic disease throughout life.

Released by the USDA and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the DGAs are the cornerstone of official government guidance on dietary recommendations across the lifespan. The guidelines serve as an essential resource for health professionals and policymakers as they design and implement food and nutrition programs that nourish Americans, including USDA’s National School Lunch Program and School Breakfast Program. The DGA also provides Americans with guidance as they make healthy choices for themselves and their families with more information available on MyPlate.

Dairy’s Role in Healthy Dietary Patterns
  • Dairy maintained its own food group with low-fat and fat-free milk, cheese and yogurt as well as lactose-free versions and fortified soy beverage and soy yogurt– but no other plant-based alternatives.
    • With regards to other plant-based alternatives, the DGA notes, “Other products sold as ‘milks’ but made from plants (e.g., almond, rice, coconut, oat, and hemp “milks”) may contain calcium and be consumed as a source of calcium, but they are not included as part of the dairy group because their overall nutritional content is not similar to dairy milk and fortified soy beverages. Therefore, consuming these beverages does not contribute to meeting the dairy group recommendation.”
  • Daily inclusion of low-fat and fat-free dairy foods is recommended in all three DGA healthy dietary patterns.
    • 3 servings in Healthy U.S. and Healthy Vegetarian Dietary Patterns
    • 2 to 2.5 servings in the Healthy Mediterranean Dietary Pattern
  • The nutrients of concern for Americans continue to be calcium, vitamin D, potassium, and fiber. Dairy foods are important sources of calcium, vitamin D and potassium in the U.S. diet and can help close these nutrient gaps.
  • The guidelines link the nutrient package of dairy foods to bone health in both adolescents and adults, showing dairy’s important nutritional support for accrual of bone mass and promotion of bone health outcomes, including prevention of the onset of osteoporosis.
New Recommendations for Birth – 23 Months (B-23)

Now for the first time, the 2020-2025 DGAs provide recommendations for pregnancy and lactation and from birth to 23 months – and this is good news for dairy, too!

  • Nutrient-rich dairy foods are recommended for children under the age of 2, who are at a crucial period of growth and development. The 2020-2025 DGAs:
    • Advise providing yogurt and cheese as complementary foods beginning at around 6 months of age.
    • Recommend Healthy U.S.-Style and Health Vegetarian Dietary Patterns for toddlers (12-23 months of age) who no longer consume human milk. These dietary patterns include 1.5 to 2 daily servings of dairy foods (i.e., whole milk, reduced-fat plain yogurt, reduced-fat cheese).

While these guidelines don’t include recommendations for sustainable food systems, the U.S. dairy community has commitments in place to advance environmental sustainability. Earlier this year, the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy announced the 2050 Environmental Stewardship Goals which include achieving carbon neutrality or better, optimizing water usage and improving water quality.

The Difference Between the July Scientific Report and the Final DGAs Issued in December

Early in the process of creating the DGAs an advisory committee is formed and tasked with evaluating peer-reviewed science and issues a scientific report.  USDA and HHS consider this report when creating the final guidelines.  This year, the recommendations in the scientific report were largely held in the final DGA.   However, HHS and USDA did not adopt the advisory committee’s call to decrease quantitative recommendations for added sugars and alcohol. Therefore, sugar and alcohol recommendations remain the same as the previous DGA: less than 10 percent of calories per day for added sugars for Americans 2 years and older and no more than 1 alcoholic beverage per day is recommended for women and no more than 2 for men.

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