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USDA Recommends 3 Cups of Dairy Per Day. Is It Too Much?

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Key Takeaways

  • A news story went viral after a family said they bought 12 gallons of milk each week.
  • Current USDA Dietary Guidelines recommend adults consume three cups of low-fat or fat-free dairy per day, but that's too much dairy for most people.
  • Milk offers certain essential nutrients, but the same nutrients can be found in fruits and vegetables.

CNN's segment on how inflation is affecting American families went viral after the Stotlers, a family of 11, revealed how much milk they buy every week—12 gallons.

Hundreds of people commented on the clip on Twitter, which has over 5 million views, expressing shock over how much milk the family consumed.

Although it sounds like an excessive amount of milk, it's still within what the USDA dietary guidelines recommended, which is three cups of dairy daily.

Allison Childress, PhD, RDN, chief clinical dietitian at the Nutrition and Metabolic Health Institute, said that 12 gallons of milk divided among 11 people over the course of one week is about 2.5 cups per person each day. The math checks out.

But the USDA recommendation is controversial among dietary experts.

“The recommended three cups per day of dairy milk is too high for most people,” Childress told Verywell. “Humans do not need dairy milk in order to get all of the nutrients needed in a healthy diet.”

Nutritional Benefits of Milk

Current guidelines recommend that Americans get three cups of low-fat or fat-free dairy daily, which can include milk, cheese, yogurt, and ice cream. If the Stotlers consumed more dairy from other sources, they could have gone over the allowance.

Milk was included in the guidelines to help people get specific vitamins and minerals that are often lacking in the American diet, according to Debbie Petitpain, MS, RDN, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

"Milk and dairy foods tend to be affordable and accessible food choices for meeting some nutrients of public health concerns, meaning nutrients we tend to not get enough of—specifically calcium, vitamin D, and potassium." Petitpain told Verywell.

Nutrients from milk offer numerous health benefits. Calcium supports the nervous system, helps muscles contract, and promotes bone and teeth health. Vitamin D may boost immunity, offer anti-inflammatory effects, improve bone density, and regulate mood. Potassium may reduce risk of stroke, kidney stones, and other diseases by controlling blood pressure.

But milk is far from the only source for these essential nutrients.

Petitpain noted that regular fruits and vegetables contain plenty of potassium. Calcium can also be found in collards, kale, turnips, mustard greens, bok choy, chia seeds, tahini, almond butter, and edamame. Humans can generate vitamin D when exposed to sunlight, and some non-dairy milk products are fortified with this vitamin.

"That just underscores the fact that 75% of Americans are not eating enough fruits and vegetables," she said. "Milk does end up contributing significantly in part because we fall short on some of the other foods."

What This Means For You

USDA Dietary Guidelines suggest consuming 3 cups of dairy every day. However, the guidelines may be skewed by lobbying efforts and dietitians have been petitioning to change the recommendations.

But Is Milk Really Healthy?

While milk does provide essential nutrients and it's rich in protein, the downsides to consuming dairy may outweigh its benefits for some people.

"Full-fat dairy foods are a significant source of saturated fat in the American diet," Petitpain said. "This is concerning because saturated fat intake is associated with an increased risk for cardiovascular disease. Cheese, in particular, is also high in sodium, another nutrient we over-consume and that increases the risk of high blood pressure."

Susan Levin, MS, RD, director of nutrition education for the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, told Verywell that "milk causes boating, diarrhea, and gas"—or lactose intolerance—in many people. An estimated 30-50 million American adults are lactose intolerant, according to the National Institute of Health (NIH).

"Dairy products take a disproportionate toll on people of color," Levin added.

NIH research shows that Black Americans, American Indians, Asian Americans and Hispanics/Latinos are more likely to experience lactose intolerance, while it is the "least common among people who are from, or whose families are from, Europe."

In addition to gastrointestinal discomfort, Levin pointed to studies that have also linked milk consumption to "an increased risk of asthma, breast, ovarian, and prostate cancers as well as cognitive decline."

Levin's group, Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, along with the American Medical Association, had urged the USDA to "ensure that the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans indicate that dairy products are unnecessary and warn of their particular health toll on people of color.”

The guidelines still listed dairy as a "core element" of healthy dietary patterns, but included "lactose-free versions and fortified soy beverages and yogurt as alternatives."

USDA also stated that "most individuals would benefit by increasing intake of dairy in fat-free or low-fat forms, whether from milk (including lactose-free milk), yogurt, and cheese or from fortified soy beverages or soy yogurt."

Ongoing Dairy Debate

The debate on whether dairy milk is necessary for a healthy diet isn't going anywhere soon. While many people have made the switch to non-dairy alternatives like oat milk and almond milk, dairy has remained a staple in American diet.

"Dairy is a huge industry in this country and a big part of many states’ economy. This makes dairy a political lightning rod as well," Levin said.

Lobbying efforts from food, beverage, and dairy industries have hindered health officials from making meaningful changes in the dietary guidelines, Civil Eats reported. The 2020-2025 guidelines looked almost identical to the ones released five years earlier.

Levin added that the USDA is responsible for offering nutrition advice for Americans but it's also mandated to support dairy farmers. This conflict of interest, she said, contributed to the contradictory guidelines that encourage less saturated fat, sodium, and sugar but pushes dairy products—which are high in all of these components.

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10 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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