When thinking of "protein," you may conjure images of meats, poultry, fish and perhaps large jugs of protein powder. That's why for many — especially vegetarians — meeting a healthful protein quota can feel daunting. If you happen to live on pizza and pasta doused with cheese, though (aka me as a 14 year old), then you may be a bit better off than you realize.
"Protein is often dairy's lesser-known nutrient and it is a secret that should be shared," said Jim White, a registered dietician nutritionist, exercise physiologist and owner of Jim White Fitness and Nutrition Studios.
Salon Food spoke with White about dairy's relative benefits — and he also shared five of his favorite dairy items to incorporate into a well-rounded diet.
But first, what exactly is protein?
"As one of the macronutrients, protein is needed in large quantities due to its many roles," White said. "Beyond providing energy (calories), protein is instrumental in maintaining our body's structure (bones, teeth, skin, hair) and promoting growth and repair (cells, muscles). Therefore, it's important for things like bone health, muscle growth and maintenance and immune function."
He adds: "Protein is also satiating which can help us feel full and support healthy weight management. The daily value for protein is 50 grams. While this is a good reference point, individuals may need more or less depending on their lifestyle and health goals."
"For my first two picks, yogurt (with Greek or Icelandic Skyr being even higher in protein) and Kefir come to mind for the dual benefit of protein plus probiotics for digestive health," White said.
He continued, saying that "you may be surprised to hear that 9 out of 10 Americans currently don't eat the daily recommended servings for vegetables or dairy foods, according to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans."
So, if you're a yogurt fan, consider adding it to your daily morning repertoire to ensure that you're incorporating the necessary amount of dairy on a regular basis. According to White, Greek yogurt varieties come out on top in terms of protein-per-serving, with more than 15 grams in a serving.
"Yogurt is one that may sound surprising given all of the options on the market, but a very low number of Americans are actually eating yogurt," White said. "In fact, U.S. adults consume less than 0.1 servings of yogurt per day. Like cottage cheese, yogurt is a high-protein food that can be served savory or sweet."
While not as well-known as yogurt, kefir — a fermented milk drink — has many of the same benefits.
"Dairy's nutrient powerhouse cannot be overlooked because a serving of dairy milk provides 13 essential nutrients, including protein but also zinc, selenium, iodine, phosphorus, potassium, vitamins A, D, B12, riboflavin, niacin and pantothenic acid," White said. "And, all of these nutrients found in dairy are associated with wellness benefits – from bone and muscle health and brain development and growth in early childhood to reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, inflammation, type 2 diabetes and osteoporosis later in life."
While plant-based milks and related products are becoming more and more popular, there's a reason that good ol' dairy, like kefir, should also remain a component of your diet.
"Whether unflavored or chocolate, low-fat or lactose-free, dairy milk is a source of protein that needs no cooking," White said. "You can drink it after a workout to refuel your body with protein, carbs, fluids and electrolytes or simply pour it on your cereal or mix it into your smoothie recipe"
I can vouch for chocolate milk as a perfect post-workout drink (although the bulk of my chocolate milk consumption is decisively not done after a workout anymore.)
"From a nutritional standpoint, daily dairy recommendations are three servings a day and according to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans the choices could be from dairy milk (including lactose-free dairy milk), cheese or yogurt as well as soy beverage and yogurt," White said. Perhaps it's actually best to enjoy a mix of both dairy and plant-based milk and milk products instead of definitively opting for one over the other?
A forever polarizing product (that tastes quite different depending on the brand and variety you purchase), cottage cheese has remained a stalwart of "health" food since the '90s. "A single serving of many brands of cottage cheese provides 19 grams of protein, no added sugars and are low fat. It also an important source of calcium which is good for bone health," White said.
"While all cheeses are a good source of protein, cottage, ricotta, Cheddar, Gruyere, Swiss and Monterey Jack are a bit higher," he continued. "Cottage cheese is a great source of protein offering 14 grams per ½-cup serving and 1.27 grams of leucine which is a branch chained amino acid that helps increase muscle mass."
White added that cottage cheese is a high-protein dairy food that deserves some attention, "not only for its nutrition package but also because it can be served savory or sweet and used on top of salads, pasta dishes and to make creamy dips!"
White concludes by "rounding it out with ricotta cheese . . . providing calcium and vitamin B12, ricotta cheese is relatively high in protein and many brands have a lot of options such as part-skim, non-fat and lactose-free." You know what this means — lasagna for all!
Unsure about cheese consumption due to fat content? White notes that "not all fat is created equal so it's important to look at more than fat content only when making food choices. A serving of natural cheese (e.g., Cheddar, mozzarella, Swiss, Gouda and so on.) is 1 ½ ounces and will generally provide about 6 grams of saturated fat and seven to 10 grams of protein. Cheese also provides other nutrients like selenium, vitamin B12, niacin, riboflavin, calcium and phosphorus – so it is a rather nutrient-rich food with some saturated fat."
White also states that it's important to consider portion size, of course.
"When following the portion size, a serving of cheese can fit into the Dietary Guidelines recommendation for 10% or less of total daily calories coming from fat," he said. "Additionally, emerging and growing peer-reviewed research has shown that dairy foods (e.g., milk, cheese and yogurt) consumed at a variety of fat levels are linked to reduced risk for cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes."
Michael is a food writer, recipe editor and educator based in his beloved New Jersey. After graduating from the Institute of Culinary Education in New York City, he worked in restaurants, catering and supper clubs before pivoting to food journalism and recipe development. He also holds a BA in psychology and literature from Pace University.