by Kim Mueller, MS, RD
Such dairy foods as yogurt and milk can truly be touted "nutritional powerhouses"
with their appreciable amounts of calcium, riboflavin, protein, magnesium, and vitamins B12, A,
and B6, which help to optimize bone health, enhance muscle function, and boost energy levels.
Health professionals agree that athletes who include the recommended 2-4 servings of dairy per
day will improve the overall nutritional quality of their diet, helping to reduce disease risk
and optimize sports performance. The National Dairy Council has even launched a 3-a-day
campaign to help encourage intake of dairy foods. Unfortunately, it is estimated that Americans
are consuming just over half the recommended amount of dairy servings per day. Read on to learn
why you should boost your daily dose of dairy!
#1 Dairy foods help sustain energy levels.
It is no secret that providing a little fuel pre-run helps to boost energy levels. However,
many of the more common pre-workout carbohydrate-rich snacks (bagels, pretzels, sports drinks)
may actually trigger a negative blood sugar response, compromising fuel usage during those runs
and ultimately leading to premature fatigue. With a low glycemic index and the ideal balance of
naturally occurring sugars and milk protein, dairy foods help keep energy levels stable
throughout the day. So next time you are looking for a pre-workout pick-me-up without that ugly
blood sugar drop, try slicing fresh fruit into a cup of nonfat yogurt or blend sliced fruit,
yogurt, and juice or milk for a delicious fruit smoothie.
#2 Dairy foods help enhance muscle recovery.
In order to optimize muscle recovery, sports scientists recommend that athletes consume
approximately a 4:1 ratio of carbohydrates and protein and replenish lost fluids and
electrolytes within 30 minutes after a workout. However, many runners complain that they are
not hungry post-workout. Instead of choking down solids, why not enjoy a glass or two of
low-fat chocolate milk, which provides a great balance of carbohydrate for glycogen
replenishment, protein and amino acids for muscle repair, as well as fluids and essential
electrolytes (sodium, potassium, magnesium, and calcium) for optimal muscle rehydration. For
another replenishing treat, try whipping up a recovery shake (check out the recipe section
under dairy) or freezing a cup of nonfat fruit yogurt.
#3 Dairy foods help prevent stress fractures.
It is well known that dairy foods provide an ample supply of calcium for optimal bone health.
Unfortunately, it is not uncommon to discover deficiencies in calcium among runners, especially
female runners following a restricted diet. In fact, one study found that female runners, on
average, were only meeting 52% of their daily calcium needs. Dietary restriction of calcium
over a nine-week period of time has been shown to speed the rate of bone turnover, which leads
to bone loss, thereby increasing the risk for stress fracture. Fortunately, a dietary plan that
includes 800-1200 mg of calcium during the years of bone development is estimated to increase
bone mineral density by 6%, thereby reducing the risk for bone fracture later in life. Boost
your intake of bone-building calcium by adding a piece of string cheese or a 1/2 cup of
part-skim ricotta (both provide 200 mg calcium) as an afternoon snack. Other calcium-rich dairy
products include milk (1 cup=300 mg calcium) and plain yogurt (1 cup=485 mg).
#4 Dairy foods help ward off colds and flus.
Consuming yogurt and other dairy products containing active cultures called probiotics seems to
increase the amount of friendly bacteria that line the intestinal wall, helping to fight off
germs that would otherwise enter and cause infection. In fact, several studies have found that
daily consumption of a mere cup of plain yogurt containing "live and active cultures"
helps to reduce the incidence of the common cold throughout the year. Yogurt is also a great
alternative to milk for those who are lactose intolerant. Yogurt contains less lactose than
milk and the bacteria helps digest the remaining lactose. When possible, try to buy yogurt that
is less than a week old to ensure reaping the most benefit from the active cultures.
Furthermore, look for yogurts that contain no more than 20 grams of sugar per 100 calories
(note that even nonfat plain yogurt will have ~15 grams of naturally occurring lactose per 100
calories). Among major brands, Stonyfield Farm is the clear leader in probiotics and has a new
convenient drinkable yogurt smoothie to cater to those of us who need a nutritional boost
"on the go". More information about their product line can be found at
#5 Dairy foods help promote optimal body composition.
One of the obvious perks of a running program is favorable changes in body composition, namely
increases in lean body (muscle) weight and decreases in fat weight. Some, however, become
frustrated when body composition goals are not reached during a training program. There is some
very promising research that ties intake of calcium-rich dairy foods to improvements in energy
metabolism and body composition. One study discovered the rate of body fat loss to be 61%
greater in individuals following a diet plan that included at least 3 servings of low-fat dairy
foods as compared to a dairy void restricted dietary plan that included a calcium supplement.
In a recent review, calcium expert Dr. Robert Heaney and his colleagues at Creighton University
concluded that having a low calcium intake over the long term more than doubles the risk for
excessive body composition.6 To reap the published fat-burning attributes of calcium, runners
should aim at consuming 800-1200 mg of calcium from low-fat or nonfat dairy foods while
following a eucaloric (calorie intake equals calorie expenditure) or slightly restricted
(250-500 daily calorie restriction) dietary plan.
Don't miss our great dairy
About the author: Kim Mueller, M.S., R.D., is a registered sports dietitian who provides
nutrition counseling and customized meal planning to athletes worldwide. For more information
on her services, go to KB