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Importance of Milk in Our Diet

author image Fiona Bayly
Based in New York City, Fiona Bayly writes about running with a focus on health, nutrition and training strategies for athletes from beginner to professional. She is an avid triathlete, former New England Scholastic Cross Country champion and current member of TeamUSA's age-group championship team in the sport of Aquathlon.
Importance of Milk in Our Diet
Milk: the powerhouse drink Photo Credit Ryan McVay/Photodisc/Getty Images

Milk--even powdered milk--is a nutritious, cost-efficient source of protein, minerals and vitamins. Yet milk is now often pushed aside to make space for excessively sugary sodas, juice and sports drinks that contribute empty calories to diets already so full of unhealthy choices that many populations are now experiencing unmatched levels of diet-related obesity, diabetes, heart disease and cancer. Replacing high-sugar beverages with nutrient-dense milk is a dietary change that should be encouraged.

Childhood: Milk's Calcium Supports Physical and Mental Development

Children should be served milk, not high-sugar beverages. Milk's outstanding protein is built from balanced amino acids that are biologically available--that is, easily absorbed and used. Milk's calcium fortifies a child's developing bones, teeth and brain tissue, and contributes to chemical reactions at the cellular level that govern muscle and neurological function. Fortified milk also provides vitamin D, a critical vitamin that helps the body absorb both calcium and phosphorous for bone integrity, promotes red blood cell production, aids digestive and nerve processes, and supports immunity. Children up to age 11 should be provided at least two daily servings of milk and dairy products.

Teenage Years: Milk Contributes High-Quality Nutrition

Teenagers also should replace sugared beverages with milk. Because adolescents undergo extraordinary physiological changes, they require energy- and nutrient-dense foods for optimal development of hormonal, muscular, circulatory and reproductive systems. The "Journal of the American College of Nutrition" details increased calcium requirements particularly during adolescence and further explains that teens' calcium intake must be accompanied by physical activity to optimize bone-calcium integration, and that adolescence is the best time to increase bone density to thwart later-life bone fragility and osteoporosis. The Amazing Benefits of Milk advises that a teen's servings of low-fat milk products should number three or more, daily.

Adulthood: The Calcium Requirements Continue

Without calcium, vitamin D and phosphorous, adults of all ages risk bone degeneration, so milk remains essential. Other calcium-rich, nondairy foods, such as tofu, broccoli and spinach, would seem good options, but some contain compounds that compromise the absorption of calcium. Spinach is high in oxalates, which hinder calcium absorption, and the calcium in other vegetables, such as broccoli, is not as readily absorbed as the calcium in milk.

Lactose Intolerance: Not a Problem

Some adults lack the enzyme lactase, produced within the gut, that digests the milk sugar lactose. Without lactase to break it down, milk can cause significant gastrointestinal discomfort. However, dairy products with added lactase enzymes are marketed precisely for the lactose-intolerant, providing milk's benefits without any indigestion. The Foundation for Better Health Care describes lactose intolerance as a gradual development and one that does not affect all adults.

Lacto-Vegetarianianism and Milk

Vegetarians who consume dairy products are especially cognizant of milk's ability to meet their daily requirements for protein, calcium and vitamin D. Milk contains all nine amino acids, creating a complete protein. Cornell University exhaustively documents milk's exact chemical profile, describing milk protein's makeup: 82 percent casein, which is rich in calcium-boosting phosphorus; and 18 percent whey, found in commercial protein powders. These and milk's other nutritional benefits means it takes only three daily servings for milk to benefit anyone.

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