Oct 12, 2023

Dairy’s crucial role: Make or break for healthy ageing in Australia

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A research study in older adults delved into the effects of dairy foods on fracture prevention. [Source: Shutterstock]

The importance of the dairy food group

The dairy food group is one of the five food groups recommended for consumption every day according to our national eating guidelines, the Australian Dietary Guidelines. Milk, cheese and yoghurt are an excellent source of calcium, high quality protein, zinc, magnesium and energy, which are important nutrients as we age. Eating enough milk, cheese and yoghurt can help reduce the risk of several chronic diseases, but unfortunately, these foods are under-consumed by many Australians, especially our seniors, with 99% not meeting the recommended intakes. In elderly Australians, this becomes an issue due to the increased requirements for calcium and protein.  

Australia’s population is ageing and because of this, there is an increasing need for residential aged care. Close to 70% of Australians in aged care homes are malnourished or at risk of malnutrition and as a result, this is the source of 30% of all hip fractures. These issues are further escalated, as often the food in aged care homes is nutritionally inadequate, with many residents consuming too many discretionary or ‘junk’ foods and not enough nutrient dense options. As adults reach the age of 50 and beyond, maintaining a balanced and nutrient-rich diet becomes increasingly crucial for overall health and well-being. 

While Australians generally understand what a serve of dairy is, there is still confusion around how many serves they need each day for good health, potentially putting their long-term bone and muscle health at risk. 

According to the Australian Dietary Guidelines, adults aged 50 and above should consume 3.5 – 4 serves of dairy foods each day (with a serve being 1 cup milk (250mL), 3/4 cup yoghurt (200g) or 2 slices (40g) of hard cheese). Dairy foods offer a convenient and delicious source of high-quality protein and calcium and incorporating tasty and convenient options such as milk, Greek yoghurt or cottage cheese into meals and snacks can contribute to meeting protein and calcium requirements, promoting muscle health, and supporting an active lifestyle.

Research highlights the importance of dairy for older adults 

Ground-breaking new research places milk, cheese and yoghurt at the forefront of aged care falls and fractures prevention. This research, led by the University of Melbourne and Austin Health and supported by global dairy organisations, investigated how improving the food in aged care impacted the health of the residents, specifically looking at how protein and calcium rich dairy foods would impact health outcomes.  

The study was a randomised controlled trial with 60 aged-care facilities and over 7,000 residents, aged in their 80s. Participants were divided into two groups: the intervention group who incorporated additional dairy into the diet (such as milk, cheese, and yoghurt), while the control group consumed their regular menu. Over the course of the study, researchers closely monitored bone health markers and number of fractures in both groups. 

Results showed that by increasing intake of dairy foods from 2 to 3.5 serves per day, this resulted in a number of significant changes including a 33% reduction in all fractures, 46% reduction in hip fractures, 11% reduction in falls, and improved calcium and protein intakes. While the study ran for two years, the benefits could be seen as early as 5 months. 

A common perception is that adding extra food to the menu will result in an increased cost, however health economics research showed a staggering reduction in aged care spend simply by increasing dairy serves. The study showed an average overall saving of $175 per resident per year, with the cost of increasing dairy serves only adding up to $0.66c per day, per resident. It is anticipated this will save $66 million from the Australian healthcare budget.

What’s the take home message?

Dairy foods are versatile and delicious and with scientific evidence showing that increasing intake to three and a half serves per day can have significant health benefits, it’s time now time for older adults to put nutrition and their bone and muscle health top of mind.

For more information, including dairy-rich recipes, please visit https://www.dairy.com.au/ageing

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