Mmm milk!

By Drum Digital
11 April 2014

The importance of milk as part of a healthy diet for babies and toddler is well-known to most moms, but you should continue giving your kids milk even as teenagers. Adolescents, and even adults, should get at least 2-3 portions of low-fat dairy products a day. Dietician Irene Labuschagne explains the importance of milk.

It’s a myth that milk is fattening and causes heart disease ? even full-cream milk is healthy as part of a balanced diet.  Other high-fat dairy products such as cream, butter and hard cheese should be eaten occasionally in smaller amounts.

Good fat

The fat in food doesn’t only consist of one type of fat but is a mixture of saturated fatty acids (SFA), monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFA) and polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA). The type of fat in your diet is important as some fats have a positive impact on normal growth and development and brain function, and others may influence cholesterol levels and could thus contribute to the development of coronary heart diseases and strokes. In the 1950s, like many other foods, such as eggs for instance, milk was criticised for being harmful because of the fat and cholesterol present in animal products.

This led to the manufacture of many low-fat milk and dairy products which are good to reduce the overall fat content of the diet. But a considerable part of the saturated fatty acids in milk fat are short-chain fatty acids and the long-chain fatty acids, called stearic acids, don’t adversely affect cholesterol levels.

Milk is low-fat and low in sodium. Food is considered low in fat if it contains 3 g or less of fat per 100 g. Full-cream milk contains about 3,4 g per 100 g while low-fat and fat-free milk contain even less. Cheeses are much higher in fat, since you need a lot of milk to make cheese (hard cheeses typically contain about 30 per cent fat).

Why your kids need dairy

Recent studies show we need dairy products in our diet for healthy teeth and bones, but for many other reasons too:

  • Consumption of dairy products may be associated with reduced risk of stroke and lowered blood pressure.
  • Bioactive substances (specific types of proteins, vitamins and other nutritional compounds) found in dairy may protect against heart disease.
  • Dairy consumption may protect overweight individuals against insulin resistance syndrome (IRS), also known as metabolic syndrome, which is a combination of metabolic disorders such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol and insulin resistance which increase the risk to develop diabetes or heart disease.
  • Calcium and dairy products protect against low bone density, osteoporosis, osteoarthritis and gout.

Magic milk

What’s the “magical ingredient” in milk and dairy products that protects against hypertension and stroke? A higher dairy intake, as part of a varied diet, plays a protective role against hypertension and stroke.

Calcium intake has been associated with a reduced risk of stroke, although not calcium intake from non-dairy sources such as supplements. Other milk minerals such as potassium and magnesium may also be important in affording such protection.

Although it’s difficult to associate any one of these minerals in dairy products on their own with the reported protective effect, it should be borne in mind a balance of calcium, magnesium and potassium and other bioactive substances in milk is important, and all three minerals are abundant in milk and dairy products.

Milk is a low-sodium protein food. Hypertensive individuals are most likely to benefit from increased low-fat or fat-free milk and dairy product consumption within the context of a diet rich in fruits and vegetables and lower in sodium.

Dairy may protect overweight people against insulin resistance syndrome (IRS)

Current lifestyle and dietary recommendations for management of insulin resistance include increased intake of mono-unsaturated fat (olive oil, canola oil, avocado and most nuts), a decreased saturated fat intake, increased dietary fibre intake , the use of low glycaemic index carbohydrates, weight loss and physical activity.

Calcium and dairy may aid in weight management

Dairy products may help to achieve and maintain ideal body weight in children and adults.

A diet high in fruit and dairy and low in white bread, processed meat, margarine, and soft drinks may help to prevent abdominal fat accumulation.

Calcium in the diet appears to be responsible for approximately 50 per cent of the bioactivity of dairy foods as they work against obesity. The additional bioactivity in dairy hasn’t been fully identified, but is primarily localised in whey protein.

Are you and your family getting enough milk and dairy products to protect your health?

Dairy products are by far the richest source of calcium, not only because of their high calcium content, but also because of the absence of factors that may interfere with calcium absorption (such as phytates in plant foods such as soy) and the presence of lactose, which aids calcium absorption.


  • Low-fat or skim milk should be used in accordance with healthy low-fat guidelines.
  • Milk intake should be approximately 600 ml a day for toddlers and young children.
  • Full-cream milk may be safely given to children from the age of 12 months.
  • Adolescents, and even adults, should get at least 2-3 portions of low-fat dairy products a day.
  • Low-fat milk should only be introduced after two years of age in overweight children and after the age of five years in average-weight kids. It’s best to introduce low-fat dairy following healthy low-fat guidelines.
  • Expert advice is necessary to achieve optimal calcium intake by dietary means for those who choose not to consume milk. Or when using calcium supplements, if and when they’re considered necessary.


  • Milk, low-fat or skim - 1 cup (250 ml)
  • Maas, low-fat  - 1 cup (250 ml)
  • Yoghurt, low-fat, sweetened - 1 tub, 100 ml
  • Skim milk powder - ¼ cup
  • Low-fat cottage cheese - ¼ cup
  • Fat-free plain yogurt - 1 cup
  • Cheese (hard cheese) - 30 g

-Irene Labuschagne

Irene is the principle dietician at NICUS (Nutrition Information Centre of the University of Stellenbosch) at the faculty of health sciences Tygerberg.

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