Better Together: Dairy + Plants

  • Article
  • 3 min read August 22, 2018

Let’s stop the food shaming and blaming – people are frustrated by conflicting advice about the very thing they need to survive: food.

The 2018 Food and Health survey from the International Food Information Council says it all:

  • 80 percent of respondents said, “There is a lot of conflicting information about what foods to eat or avoid.”
  • 59 percent said, “Conflicting information makes us doubt our food choices.”

When it comes to helping people understand terms like “plant-based” and “plant-forward,” health and wellness professionals and food experts, especially registered dietitian nutritionists, can offer guidance.


When the term “plant-based diet” is used to indicate that animals are not important to our food chain, it can lead to unintended consequences.

Think back to science class. We’re part of a giant, interdependent food chain. There is a reciprocal relationship that exists in nature between plants and animals, both of which are important to the food chain— and not only to help nourish people. It’s science 101: Animals eat plants, but they also help fertilize the growth of new plants or pollinate flowering plants for new seed growth.

Plant foods also have a carbon footprint – all foods do. It’s about continuously improving along the entire food chain to be mindful of how resources are used and respected to ensure balance between the health of people and communities with the health of the planet. You can learn more about the dairy community’s sustainability efforts to continuously improve here.

Infographic on the benefits of a dairy and plant-based diet.

Nutrients and Benefits

Food groups exist for a reason. The types of foods in each food group provide unique nutrients and benefits that foods in the other food groups may not offer. That’s why choosing variety and balance across all food groups is important in a healthy dietary pattern. Even one glass of milk provide 13 essential nutrients per serving, including protein, calcium, vitamin A, vitamin D, zinc and selenium.

“Plant-based” does not mean the absence of animal foods, but rather is a term to encourage increasing plant foods in the diet, including fruit, vegetables, legumes and whole grains. It’s a representation of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA) Healthy Eating Patterns, which have a substantial amount of plant foods, but also recommend animal-based foods such as three daily servings of dairy (for those aged 9 and older in the Healthy U.S.-Style Eating Pattern) as well as animal and plant sources of protein.

Even the DGA Healthy Vegetarian Eating Pattern includes three daily servings of dairy for those aged 9 and older. Of course, some people are vegan, and the DGA has options to help vegans meet their nutritional needs, too.

One way to put this in perspective is to think about it as a “plus:”

  • It’s plants + animals,
  • milk + whole grain cereal
  • yogurt + fruit
  • broccoli + cheese
  • bean and veggie burrito + cheese, etc.

Especially because Americans over the age of 2 are falling short on fruits, vegetables and dairy when it comes to meeting the daily recommendations of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans; over 80 percent of the population does not meet daily recommendations for dairy and for vegetables. Similarly, nearly 80 percent of Americans 2 years old and older fall below recommendations for fruit consumption. Those of us at National Dairy Council love to say it’s about plants plus animals, not plants vs. animals.

Dairy and Plant-Based Recipes

Want to ramp up your own intake of fruits and veggies? Here are 15 of our favorite recipes that celebrate the joy of eating a variety of foods from plant and animal sources:

Roasted Tomato and Cheese Tart with Spring Salad

Potato Broccoli and Cheese Soup

Spanish Date Night

Creamy Brown Rice and Vegetable Pilaf

Chipotle Three Bean Salad

Grilled Shrimp with Yogurt Cilantro Salsa

Smoked Cheddar Kale Empanadas

Creamy Arroz con Pollo

Slow Cooker Fresh Veggie Lasagna

Vegetarian Taco Salad

Spinach-stuffed Shells

Pepper Jack Egg White Frittata

Banana and Yogurt Crepes

Berry Dairy Delicious Smoothie

Fruit and Quaker Oatmeal Smoothie