MyPlate - The Dairy Group: Get Your Calcium-Rich Foods

Guide E-140
Carol Turner
College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences, New Mexico State University

Author: Extension Food and Nutrition Specialist, Department of Extension Family and Consumer Sciences, New Mexico State University. (Print Friendly PDF)


Fig. 1:

The dairy group includes all liquid milk and products made with milk that retain their calcium after processing, including yogurt, cheese, and calcium-fortified soymilk (soy beverage). Cream cheese, cream, and butter are not included because processing reduces or causes them to lose their calcium content, and they are high in fat and low in nutrients.

Fig. 2: Illustration of serving milk.

Nutrients in the Dairy Group

The following nutrients are found in most dairy products. A typical American diet is usually low in nutrients marked with an asterisk (*).

*Calcium is the most important nutrient provided by dairy products—it helps to grow healthy bones and teeth. Getting enough calcium in your diet helps avoid osteoporosis, a disease where bones develop many holes and can be easily crushed or fractured. Calcium is also needed for muscle and nerve function and blood clotting.

Protein builds, repairs, and maintains all body tissues, including bones, muscles, cartilage, skin, and blood. It also helps to fight infections, is a good source of energy, and serves as building blocks for enzymes, hormones, and vitamins. Protein, carbohydrates, and fat are the three nutrients that provide calories.

*Vitamin D helps regulate levels of calcium and phosphorus in the blood. Vitamin D is not a naturally occurring substance in dairy products and is only found in products that have been fortified with vitamin D.

*Potassium helps maintain a healthy blood pressure and is needed for muscle and nerve function.

Phosphorus provides energy in the body's cells.

*Vitamin B12 helps keep nerve cells and red blood cells healthy and assists in making DNA.

Riboflavin helps convert food into energy.

Vitamin A aids in normal vision, keeps skin healthy, and helps protect against infections.

How Much Dairy is Needed?

MyPlate recommends eating between 2 and 3 cups of milk or milk products every day, depending on your age, gender, and level of physical activity (Table 1). For more information, visit

Table 1. Daily Recommendations for the Dairy Group

  Age Cup(s)
Children 2–3 years
4–8 years
2 1/2
Girls 9–13 years
14–18 years
Boys 9–13 years
14–18 years
Women 19–30 years
31–50 years
51+ years
Men 19–30 years
31–50 years
51+ years

What does one cup from the dairy group mean?

  • 1 cup of fluid milk
  • 1 cup of yogurt
  • 1 1/2 ounces (2 slices) of hard cheese (cheddar, mozzarella, Swiss, Parmesan)
  • 1/3 cup of shredded hard cheese (cheddar, mozzarella, Swiss, Parmesan; equivalent to 1 1/2 ounces)
  • 2 ounces (3 slices) of processed cheese (American)
  • 1 1/2 cups of ice cream
  • 2 cups of cottage cheese

Calcium and Lactose Intolerance

There are some people that cannot tolerate lactose, the sugar in milk, but they still need a source of calcium in their diets. As an alternative to milk, people with lactose intolerance can choose cheese and yogurt or lactose-free alternatives.

Here are some examples of foods that contain calcium that you can eat in place of milk or dairy products:

  • Calcium-fortified beverages
  • Canned fish with bones
  • Soybeans and soy products
  • Leafy greens, such as collard and turnip greens, kale, and bok choy

Tips for Consuming More Dairy Products

  • Drink milk with each meal.

  • Use milk to prepare cream soups.

  • Add cheese to salads, pizza, casseroles, soups, and stews.

  • Use milk to prepare hot cereals.

  • Use milk in your hot beverages, such as lattes, cappuccinos, and teas.

  • Eat yogurt or cheese sticks for a calcium-rich snack.

  • Use yogurt as a dressing for salads or a topping for a baked potato, or try it mixed with fruit.

  • Try ice cream, frozen yogurt, or pudding made with milk for dessert.

Keep it Safe

  • Avoid raw (unpasteurized) milk or products made from raw milk.

  • Refrigerate dairy products promptly. If dairy products have been left at temperatures between 40° and 140° F for more than two hours, discard them.

“Go, Slow, Whoa” Foods

An easy way to make smart and nutritious choices within the dairy group is to use the “Go, Slow, Whoa” concept.

  • “Go” foods are the most nutrient-dense; they contain more of the nutrients you need with relatively fewer calories. Eat them almost anytime, based on your calorie needs.
    – Examples: fat-free or 1% low-fat milk; fat- free or low-fat yogurt; part-skim, reduced- fat, or fat-free cheese; low-fat or fat-free cottage cheese.

  • “Slow” foods are higher in calories, fat, and/or sugar than “Go” foods. Eat them sometimes, at most several times a week.
    – Examples: 2% low-fat milk, processed cheese spread.

  • “Whoa” foods are high in calories, fat, and/or sugar and offer little nutritional value. Eat them only once in a while or on special occasions, and in small portions.
    – Examples: whole milk; full-fat American, cheddar, Colby, Swiss cheese; whole-milk yogurt; ice cream.

To learn more about “Go, Slow, and Whoa” foods, visit


National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. 2012. Choosing foods for your family: GO, SLOW, and WHOA foods [Online]. Available from

United States Department of Agriculture. n.d. [Online]. Available from

Fig. 3: Carol Turner, Extension Food and Nutrition Specialist and the Assistat Dietetic Internship Director, Department of Extension Family and Consumer Sciences, NMSU.

Fig. 4:

To find more resources for your business, home, or family, visit the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences on the World Wide Web at

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Printed and electronically distributed September 2012, Las Cruces, NM.