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The benefits of eating dairy for children and adults

Last updated 18th December 2020

Written by: Dr Mabel Blades PhD. B.Sc.(Hons), RD, D.M.S., M.Phil., MIFST., M.B.A., R.S.H.

Registered Dietitian and member of the British Dietetic Association

Infant feeding

For millions of years mammals, which includes humans, have fed their young with the milk they secrete. Today the experts at the British Nutrition Foundation say “For the best start for your baby breastfeeding is recommended for the first 6 months." This is supported by the NHS which says,Breast milk is the only food or drink babies need in the first 6 months of their life”.  

“Infant formula is the only suitable alternative to breast milk in the first 12 months of your baby's life.” Most Infant formulae are based on cows’ milk,  but a few are specially formulated for babies who have allergies and intolerances to cow’s milk.

Complementary feeding

This is sometimes referred to as weaning and is when infants are provided with nourishment in addition to breast or formula milk and normally occurs at 6 months of age. Along with vegetables and starchy carbohydrates pasteurised dairy foods such as pasteurised full-fat yogurt and cheese are suitable foods for babies from around 6 months. Cows’ milk is not a suitable drink until a baby is 12 months old, but it can be used in cooking or mixed with food from 6 months of age.
A selection of dairy products in front of a blue background

12 months of age​

From 1 year of age whole cows’ milk can be given as a main drink along with full fat yogurts and cheese. These foods are good sources of calcium which helps children build healthy bones and teeth. They also contain vitamin A which is needed to resist infections and for skin and eyes. It is recommended to give children 350ml milk a day or 2 servings of yogurt or cheese.

2 years of age

Children may now be given semi-skimmed milk provided they are eating well.

5 years of age and school age

By now children should be eating as shown by the Eatwell Guide and regularly including dairy products each day. At this age fully skimmed milk may be introduced.

Milk and dairy foods are best known for supplying us with calcium. Calcium is required for healthy teeth and bones, blood clotting and muscle contraction, including the heart muscle.

It is important to remember that we build our bone mass through childhood to early adulthood, from mid adulthood we begin to lose bone mass. Therefore, a good calcium and vitamin D intake in childhood, along with weight bearing exercise, is essential for life-long bone health.

Children have a requirement for calcium 550 mg/day per day for both 7-10-year boys and girls. Children are also growing rapidly and can increase by about 5 – 6cm a year over the primary school years, and gain weight accordingly. Protein is important for this growth to occur.  It also helps with the development of children’s bones. Milk and dairy foods contain two types of protein: whey and casein, both of which provide a complete source of 9 essential amino acids required for such roles as growth.


Teenagers have a high requirement for calcium due to the rapid growth period experienced at this time and 11-18 years olds require 800mg/day for females and 1000mg/day for males.

Unfortunately, as quoted by Dairy UK 19% of  11- to 18-year-old girls are not getting the calcium they need from food. The teens are a time when individuals experiment with different types of diet like becoming a vegan or vegetarian or following paleo diets. Others may eat too much high fat and high sugar fast foods while others have busy lives with college, sport, and social activities. This is a time when vitamin B12 and other nutrients from milk become increasingly important. 

Vitamin B12 is important for the formation of healthy red blood cells and nerve function. It is also involved in energy production systems in the body, as well as helping the immune system to work normally and thus assists in reducing tiredness and fatigue. Milk, yogurt, and cheese are natural sources of vitamin B12 as well as being a natural source of vitamin B2 (riboflavin) which aids the release of energy from carbohydrates and protein.

Thus, these vitamins can help to reduce tiredness and fatigue.A breakfast of cereal and milk makes a quick and easy nutritious breakfast for teenagers.

Pregnancy and breastfeeding

This is an important time, but it is not a time for eating for 2 as only during the last trimester (3 months) of pregnancy is an extra 200kcal per day needed.

During pregnancy, The British Dietetic Association advises 3 portions of dairy foods due to the calcium they contain. They advise 3 portions of these foods per day. With a portion being  180ml (1/3 pint) milk, 150g yogurt, 25g cheese. Dairy products contain much more than calcium and as described contain protein, vitamin B2, vitamin B12 plus phosphorus, and potassium. Iodine is also found in milk and deserves special attention.

It is an essential mineral important for healthy nerve and brain function, and healthy skin. Approximately one-third of the population is at risk of iodine deficiency so a diet containing dairy, which is one of the main providers of iodine in the UK diet, is a sensible choice.  This is even more important for women who are pregnant or nursing as their iodine requirements are higher.

During breastfeeding an extra 550mg calcium a day is needed which can be met by having an extra glass of milk and pot of yogurt. Dairy products such as milk, hard cheese and yogurt are good sources of calcium. A 200ml glass of milk will provide 34% of our recommended daily intake of calcium, a 150g pot of low-fat fruit yogurt contains 26%, and a 30g piece of a hard cheese 28%.

Along with calcium, phosphorus is needed to support the maintenance of normal bones and teeth, and is particularly needed for the normal growth and development of children’s bones. 

It also helps normal energy production and cell membranes to function.  Phosphorus is naturally found in protein-rich foods such as meats, poultry, fish, nuts, beans, and dairy products. Phosphorus found in animal foods is absorbed more easily than phosphorus found in plant foods. Foods high in potassium are an essential part of any balanced diet. This important mineral helps muscles and the nervous system work normally, and supports the maintenance of normal blood pressure.


Most bone development takes place during childhood and the teenage years, generally continuing to strengthen into the mid-thirties. After which we tend to lose bone gradually, which becomes accelerated during the menopause.  Calcium is a key contributor to the maintenance of normal bones and teeth, and as such it is important that we consume adequate amounts of calcium throughout our lives. Milk remains one of the most well absorbed or “bioavailable” forms of calcium.

Older people

With age people become more at risk of osteoporosis where the bones become porous and fragile. The Royal Osteoporosis Society  says "Calcium and vitamin D are two well-known nutrients for bones”. Thus, continuing to take an adequate amount of calcium is important for older people.

Vitamin D is recognised as extremely important and Public Health England and NICE have updated their advice in November 2020 to recommend that everyone should take a supplement of 10 micrograms of vitamin per day. Older people can suffer from sarcopenia which is the loss of muscle mass that occurs with age and results in loss of muscle function. The recommended Reference Nutrient Intake (RNI) for adults is 0.83g of protein per kilogram bodyweight per day.

A number of nutrition experts have recommended that elderly people should increase their protein intake to 1.0-1.2 g per kilo body weight per day. Many dietitians who work with older people who are at risk of  malnutrition and sarcopenia advocate they use milk which is enriched with milk powder in drinks plus smoothies to boost their protein intake as well as provide extra calories.

PLEASE NOTE: It is recommended that anyone with any special dietary requirements or medical needs should consult with a registered dietitian on how to adapt the Eatwell Guide to meet their individual needs.