Can Plant-Based Diets Include Dairy?

milk and yogurt surrounded by fruit and vegetables

Plant-based diets are gaining in popularity. As a Registered Dietitian, I support Americans’ desire to include more fruits and vegetables in their diets. However, when plant-based turns to plant-only, the story changes.    

Eliminating whole food groups, like dairy foods for example, eliminates the nutrients that are provided from that specific food group. It’s important to remember that the Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends five food groups—fruits, vegetables, lean protein, whole grains, and dairy—because each of these food groups provides a specific set of nutrients that our bodies need.  

Sadly, very few Americans are consuming food in the amounts recommended by the Dietary Guidelines. Diving deeper, Americans are not getting adequate amounts of calcium, potassium, vitamin D, and fiber—dubbed the “Nutrients of Concern” for good reason because inadequate consumption has been linked to chronic diseases, such as heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and some cancers.  

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The good news is that three of the Nutrients of Concern—calcium, potassium, and vitamin D—are provided by dairy foods like milk, but they are hard to replace if dairy foods are taken out of the diet. For example, you would need to eat 17 cups of raw kale and 15 sardines to get the same amount of calcium and vitamin D, respectively, in the recommended 3 glasses of milk per day.  

There is no reason that dairy foods can’t have a place in a plant-based diet. They pair perfectly with fruits and vegetables and research shows that a mix of dairy foods and plant-based foods had the best chance of closing nutrient gaps for Americans.  

Instead of plant OR animal, reframe the way you think about it as plant AND animal. Animal foods make important nutrient contributions to healthy, plant-based eating patterns.  

Southeast Dairy Association - Lanier Dabruzzi

Lanier Dabruzzi, MS, RD, LD 

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