Milk and dairy products, such as cheese and yogurt, are great sources of protein and calcium and can form part of a healthy, balanced diet. Unsweetened, calcium-fortified dairy alternatives like soya milks, soya yogurt and soya cheeses also count as part of this food group and can make good alternatives to dairy products. To make healthier choices, go for lower-fat and lower-sugar options.
Healthy dairy choices
The total fat content of dairy products can vary a lot. To make healthier choices, look at the nutrition information on the label to check the amount of fat, including saturated fat, salt and sugar in the dairy products that you are choosing. Much of the fat in milk and dairy foods is saturated fat.
For older children and adults, eating too much fat can contribute to excess energy intakes, leading to becoming overweight. A diet high in saturated fat can also lead to raised levels of cholesterol in the blood, and this can put you at increased risk of a heart attack or stroke.
The fat in milk provides calories for young children and also contains essential vitamins. But for older children and adults, it's a good idea to go for lower-fat milks because having too much fat in your diet can result in you becoming overweight. If you're trying to cut down on fat, try swapping to 1% fat or skimmed milk, as these still contain the important nutritional benefits of milk, but are lower in fat.
Cheese can form part of a healthy, balanced diet, but it's good to keep track of how much you eat and how often as it can be high in saturated fat and salt. Most cheeses - including Brie, Stilton, Cheddar, Lancashire and Double Gloucester - contain between 20g and 40g of fat per 100g.
Foods that contain more than 17.5g of fat per 100g are considered high in fat. Some cheeses can also be high in salt - more than 1.5g salt per 100g is considered high. Eating too much salt can contribute to high blood pressure. Try choosing reduced-fat hard cheeses, which usually have between 10g and 16g of fat per 100g.
Some cheeses are even lower in fat (3g of fat per 100g or less), including reduced-fat cottage cheese and quark. If you're using cheese to flavor a dish or a sauce, you could try using a cheese that has a stronger flavor, such as mature cheddar or blue cheese, because then you'll need less.
But remember if not fully cooked some blue cheeses and soft mould ripened cheese may not be suitable for 'at risk' groups - for example, infants and young children, people over 65 years of age, pregnant women or those who have a long-term medical condition or weakened immune system.
Other dairy foods
Butter is high in fat and saturated fat. It can often be high in salt too, so try to eat it less often and in small amounts. Choosing lower-fat spreads instead of butter is a good way to reduce your fat intake. Cream is also high in fat, so use this less often and in small amounts too
You can use lower fat plain yogurt and fromage frais instead of cream. Alternatively, you could opt for reduced fat soured cream, or reduced fat crème fraîche in recipes but remember, these foods can also contain a lot of saturated fat. When eating yogurts or fromage frais, choose lower-fat varieties, but look at the label to check that they're not high in added sugar (plain lower-fat yogurts are a good choice as they usually don't contain added sugars).
Milk allergy and lactose intolerance
Milk and dairy foods are good sources of nutrients, so don't cut them out of your or your child's diet without first speaking to a GP or dietitian. There are 2 conditions that cause a reaction to milk.
Lactose intolerance is a common digestive problem where the body is unable to digest lactose - a type of sugar mainly found in milk and dairy products. Lactose intolerance can cause symptoms such as bloating and diarrhea. It does not cause severe reactions.
Cows' milk allergy
Cows' milk allergy (CMA) is one of the most common childhood food allergies. CMA typically develops when cows' milk is first introduced into your baby's diet either in formula or when your baby starts eating solids. More rarely, it can affect babies who are exclusively breastfed because of cows' milk from the mother's diet passing to the baby through breast milk. As with all food allergies and intolerances, if you think you or your baby have a milk allergy or intolerance; make an appointment to talk to your GP or other health professional.
Dairy alternatives and substitutes
Some people need to avoid dairy products and/or cows' milk because their bodies can't digest lactose (lactose intolerance) or they have an allergy to cows' milk protein. Some people also choose not to have dairy products for other reasons, for example because they follow a vegan diet. There are a number of alternative foods and drinks available in supermarkets to replace milk and dairy products, such as:
* Soya milks, yogurts and some cheeses
* Rice, oat, almond, hazelnut, coconut, quinoa, and potato milks
* Foods which carry the 'dairy-free' or 'suitable for vegans' signs
Remember that milk and dairy foods are good sources of important nutrients, so don't cut them out of your or your child's diet without first speaking to your GP or dietitian. If you're unable to, or choose not to, eat dairy products you may not be getting enough calcium in your diet.