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Exploring the Food Groups

Milk, Yogurt, and Cheese Group
The milk or dairy group is also on the third level from the bottom of the Food Guide Pyramid, next to the meat group. The milk group includes milk and foods made from milk, such as yogurt, cheese, cottage cheese, buttermilk, frozen yogurt, and ice cream. The milk group, especially milk, yogurt, and cheese, is an excellent source of calcium and riboflavin. These foods provide many essential vitamins and minerals as well as protein. According to the National Dairy Council, "Intake of fluid milk has been demonstrated to reduce the risk of osteoporosis, hypertension, and colon cancer. Drinking milk may help to reduce the risk of kidney stones. Milk intake may help to reduce the risk of tooth decay by acting as a substitute for saliva."

Fact: Even though some varieties of orange juice contain calcium, they should still be counted as a fruit and not a dairy serving. Calcium is only one nutrient, and the nutrient content of juice is closer to a fruit than a dairy serving.

Fewer servings are needed from the milk group compared to other food groups, because dairy foods are naturally higher in fat. Smaller amounts from the milk group will still provide the nutrients that you need. The Food Guide Pyramid suggests consuming two to three servings from the milk group each day.

One serving equals any of the following:

  • 1 cup low-fat or fat-free milk
  • 1 cup low-fat yogurt
  • 1 ounces natural cheese
  • 2 ounces processed cheese
  • 1/3 cup dry milk
  • cup low-fat cottage cheese
Dairy foods are good sources of protein, calcium, riboflavin, phosphorus, potassium, vitamin A, and vitamin D. The dairy group is one of the biggest contributors to calcium intake, which is extremely important for bone health. Dairy foods are also a source of fat and cholesterol. Since dairy products are animal products, the majority of the fat they contain is saturated (the bad fat). Choosing lower-fat and fat-free versions can decrease fat and cholesterol intake. Skim milk has all the important nutrients in the same quantity as low-fat or whole milk. The only difference is the fat and calorie content.

Looking at Lactose
Dairy foods contain a natural occurring sugar called lactose. During digestion of dairy foods, an enzyme called lactase breaks down lactose to make it easily digestible. People who are lactose intolerant produce too little of this enzyme. Left undigested, lactose can cause nausea, cramping, bloating, gas, and diarrhea. Some people are more tolerant than others and can eat dairy products in different amounts. If you are lactose intolerant, choose low-lactose or lactose-free dairy products. A majority of lactose-intolerant people can eat yogurt with no symptoms.

ALERT! Lactose intolerance is not the same as a milk allergy. People who have a milk allergy are actually allergic to the protein in milk. People with a milk allergy must avoid all milk products and any foods made from milk.

Safety Tips
As with any food group, it is important to choose your dairy products carefully and handle them properly for safety.

Tips for using dairy products safely include the following:

  • Check the "sell-by" or "use-by" date on dairy products before purchasing. Examine containers for leaks and other damage.
  • Buy only dairy foods that are properly refrigerated in the store.
  • Keep dairy products properly chilled in your refrigerator at home.
  • Temperatures above 40 degrees reduce the shelf life of milk and other milk products.
  • Keep milk containers closed to prevent the absorption of other food flavors in the refrigerator.
  • Never return unused milk to the original container.
Fats, Oils, and Sweets
Fats, oils, and sweets are concentrated at the tip of the Food Guide Pyramid. These foods include foods that are mostly fat or sugar, such as oils, salad dressings, cream, butter, gravy, margarine, cream cheese, soft drinks, candy jams, gelatins, and fruit drinks. These foods supply calories, but little in the way of nutrients. The tip of the pyramid is not considered a food group and has no recommended serving ranges because there are no minimum requirements for these foods. For most of the foods in the fat category, it is best to choose lower-fat versions such as low-fat cream cheese, sour cream, salad dressing, and the like. These foods add flavor to foods and can be part of a healthy diet, if consumed in moderation. Enjoy foods that contain added sugars, such as soft drinks and candy, only in moderation.

Putting the Pyramid Together
The idea behind the Food Guide Pyramid is not to try to design each one of your meals after it, but to use it as a daily or weekly guide. The key is to eat, on average, according to the guidelines in the pyramid. If your present diet does not meet the recommendations, begin to make small changes until you can, on average, eat the way the pyramid instructs. Make small changes one at a time such as adding a fruit at breakfast, adding a vegetable at lunch, or switching to skim milk or low-fat salad dressing. Gradual changes are more apt to become a permanent part of your lifestyle than radical ones.

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Copyright © 2002 by Kimberly A. Tessmer. Excerpted from The Everything Nutrition Book: Boost Energy, Prevent Illness, and Live Longer with permission of its publisher, Adams Media Corporation.

To order this book visit Amazon.com.


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