Doctors Recommend Dairy Foods to Support African American Nutrition and Health

  • June 3, 2024

Following nutrition guidelines can help address health issues Black Americans face, and dairy foods have a role to play in this endeavor. Many Black Americans, however, avoid these foods because of lactose intolerance and the perception they’re not culturally relevant. But avoiding dairy can mean missing nutrients that support health throughout our lives. 

 Science backs this up, and now so does an organization of African American doctors—the National Medical Association. They found that dairy foods play a role to address health disparities among Black American people.

Dairy Foods And Reducing Chronic Disease Risks

After a comprehensive review of credible science, the NMA concluded that consuming dairy is associated with a reduced risk of chronic conditions including:

  • hypertension
  • cardiovascular disease
  • metabolic syndrome
  • Type 2 Diabetes
  • and osteoporosis

That’s consistent with evidence demonstrating healthy eating patterns are correlated with beneficial outcomes throughout our lives. Think of when people tend to eat more vegetables, fruits and whole grains. When combined with lower rates of eating red and processed meats and sugar-sweetened foods, these overall eating patterns are tied to reduced risk for various health conditions, including:

  • Obesity
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • breast cancer 
  • colorectal cancer
  • and other related conditions.

Here's where dairy foods come in to close the health gap for Black Americans: Milk, cheese and yogurt have a unique nutrient package that’s not replaced by other food groups.

And for those who suffer from lactose intolerance, here’s good news: There are more low-lactose options available than ever before—no discomfort necessary. Some dairy foods are even already low in lactose, just the way they are. That includes the mozzarella on your pizza or the Greek yogurt in your fridge.

NMA-Recommended Dairy Products for Black Health Equity

The National Medical Association, therefore, recommends Black Americans of all life stages meet the DGA recommended intake levels for dairy foods as part of a healthy eating pattern to reduce health disparities and improve health equity. Keep reading for examples of how this applies at every age:

A pregnant woman smiling while holding a spoon and a bowl. Good nutrition can set children up for future health and success.

Having Dairy During Pregnancy

This life stage demands regular nutrition and medical attention to foster the health of Black people while promoting their baby’s healthy development. Milk’s high-quality protein, iodine, B vitamins and more, is associated with a lower risk of gestational diabetes and pregnancy-related high blood pressure.

It also helps produce more nutrient-rich breast milk. The first 1,000 days of life are an important window of time when good nutrition can set children up for future health and success.

Two smiling parents holding their newborn baby.

Why Dairy Products are Great for Infants and Toddlers

A growing body of evidence shows adequate nutrition early in life, especially regular nutrient intake from animal-sourced foods, support all major neurocognitive developmental milestones of young children. Fermented foods like yogurt and cheese are also easy first foods.

A boy drinking a glass of milk as a girl sits in the background.

Dairy's Impact on African American Children's Diets

Research shows Black American children and adolescents endure higher rates of undernutrition, overnutrition and food insecurity. Unreliable access to food is associated with emotional, behavioral and academic problems.

The range and quality of nutrients in dairy foods can help address these gaps. Between ages 5 and 17 years, children experience rapid growth and development. That’s why proper nutrition, inclusive of dairy, is key to establishing a foundation for lifelong health.

A woman smiling while holding a plate of snacks and a piece of cheese.

Adult African-American Health Concerns

Eating well is essential to closing health disparities many Black Americans face due to discrimination and social and financial stressors that in some cases impact hunger and access to nutritious foods.

Health concerns include high rates of blood pressure, diabetes, obesity and an overall earlier onset of chronic disease and shorter lifespans compared to White Americans.

Several studies show that adults who eat the highest amount of dairy have a 25% lower risk of obesity compared to those who eat the lowest number of dairy foods. Not to mention dairy foods’ nutrients are correlated to reduced risk of type 2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome—as well as improved heart health.

An older man smiling while passing a plate of food to a young girl.

Supporting Older African-American Adult Health

There continues to be an opportunity for older adults to not lose what they have spent a lifetime building: Dairy foods help maintain strong bones and muscles while lowering chances of nutrient deficiencies.

Want to support a strong immune system while reducing risks from infectious diseases? As older Black Americans have higher rates of chronic disease, with a greater risk of complications for longer periods of time, one step in risk reduction is to consume milk every day.

Milk is a source of 13 essential nutrients that support health and wellness no matter your age. Three daily servings of dairy foods support healthy aging by reducing the chance of physical and mental decline and addressing health disparities that disproportionately affect Black American seniors. 

Strategies to address lactose intolerance

At the same time, lactose intolerance from dairy is a concern for many people of color. Unnecessary dairy avoidance is a critical issue for the health and well-being of Black Americans since most of this population are chronically under-consuming multiple nutrients of public health concern. These include calcium, potassium and Vitamin D, which are all found in milk.

However, there are proven strategies to address lactose intolerance using a personalized approach. They include: 

Two half-gallons of lactose free milk behind a glass of milk.

Trying lactose-free dairy foods

Lactose-free dairy foods have had the lactose filtered out and/or have been treated with lactase enzymes and will contain all the nutrients of regular dairy foods. 

A person dipping a chip into a bowl filled with a sauce.

Eating fermented foods such as yogurt, kefir and cheese

Thanks to the fermentation process, these foods are generally low in lactose and provide health-promoting bioactive compounds. Yogurt and kefir also often contain probiotics.  

People sprinkling cheese on a plate which features a pasta dish.

Consuming lactose-containing dairy foods in small amounts or with a meal

Many individuals with lactose intolerance can consume one glass of milk, or 12 grams of lactose, without experiencing symptoms. However, if this amount is not tolerable, it is recommended to consume smaller amounts more often to still meet nutrient-intake recommendations.

In addition, consuming dairy foods along with other foods can slow the transit of lactose through the gastrointestinal tract, reducing symptoms.

Taking lactase supplements prior to meals with lactose-containing dairy foods

Consuming lactase-containing supplements 5 to 30 minutes before a meal can assist in the breakdown of lactose and significantly reduce symptoms. 

A table filled with different food dishes as people serve themselves.

What Are Low-Lactose Foods?

Companies have come a long way in recent years to make lactose-free milk and other dairy foods more widely available. But you might not always have to look for a “lactose-free” label at the grocery store.

Did you know some of your favorite dairy foods are naturally low in lactose? About 1.5 oz. of a natural cheese like Cheddar has less than a gram of lactose. Compare that to a cup of milk, which is 12 grams.

Yes, you can have dairy foods—and their nutrients—even if you’re lactose intolerant.  

Delicious Low-Lactose Recipes

Want to make a delicious low-lactose meal? Check out these recipes designed by Chef Scotty Scott in collaboration with Constance Brown-Riggs, R.D.

Sweet Potato & Ricotta Cheese Waffles Recipe 

Skillet Cornbread Recipe 

Macaroni and Cheese with Panko Breadcrumbs 

Sweet Potato Pie 

Salmon, Corn and Potato Chowder 

Yogurt-Marinated Chicken with A Kick 

Creamy Summer Coleslaw Recipe

Cheesy Grits Recipe