Dairy is the forgotten superfood, says nutritionist and award-winning cookery writer Annie Bell, who used to avoid it herself. She explains the science behind her personal 3 a day approach

Any products in this article have been selected editorially however if you buy something we mention, we may earn commission

For a long time, I avoided dairy. I lost my taste for it during a period of general appetite loss after my mother died. It was during a wellbeing check up that a dietician expressed her concern. She gave me a sheet with the different sources of calcium, and I realised that effectively there is no other way of getting enough than through dairy. But, I also found the sheet lacking in guidance about how to include it in my diet. This eventually fuelled my book,  The Modern Dairy , which aims to put nutrition guidelines into practice, suggest ways of including dairy in our lives and address any fears or uncertainty with recipes geared towards harnessing dairy’s goodness, while treating with caution its wider excess by way of saturated fat and salt. And also to persuade the lactose intolerant to return to the fold by explaining which dairy foods to choose.

dairy can contain anything from 0% to 80% fat – something akin to the difference between water and brandy in terms of alcohol

While most ingredients tend to have a fairly static profile of macronutrients (meat and fish will be high in protein, and fruit high in carbohydrate), dairy is unique in the way that the proportion of the macronutrients can vary markedly. Our total fat intake is not meant to exceed 35 per cent of our energy, and no more than 11 per cent of that should be saturated. But dairy can contain anything from 0 per cent to 80 per cent fat – something akin to the difference between water and brandy in terms of alcohol. Likewise, protein can account for almost all of a dairy product or very little.

For example, 100g Parmesan contains about 30g fat, 36g protein and 1g carbohydrate, whereas quark contains less than 1g of fat, 14g protein and 4g carbohydrate for the same amount. This is the key to dairy’s potential health benefits, as it is uniquely flexible. It can be whatever you want it to be. No other food group can match dairy in that sense.

I find the most helpful way of including the right amount of dairy in my daily diet is to treat it as I do my five-a-day fruit and veg, by aiming for three-a-day of different types. Bearing in mind that a portion can include a yogurt of about 150g, a 30g hunk of cheese, or 200ml of milk, this provides a good benchmark to aim for. In short: little and often and as varied as possible.

We bandy around the expression ‘superfood’, crowning new ingredients on a monthly basis for their nutrient-rich profile, and yet I cannot think of a single one that comes close to matching milk. It is a perfect, complete foodstuff, the only food mammals needed to survive during their early days. Milk is unique; it has never been successfully replicated in an artificial form. Within the base of water, it contains all the macronutrients - proteins, fats, carbohydrate - as well as the full complement of vitamins and minerals.

Yet for more than 40 years, we have given dairy a wide berth, fearful of what it might do to our cholesterol levels and waistlines. This is largely down to official guidance for losing weight and staying healthy, which has revolved around reducing fat and calories. Yet obesity has continued to rise unabated. Diets higher in fat are making a comeback and dairy fat is nothing to be afraid of or to avoid: it is a high-quality foodstuff, providing we eat it in a way that is discerning. In fact, there is a growing body of evidence that calls into question the advice to reduce your fat intake either to lose weight or in the interests of reducing chronic disease.

Dairy has also suffered from the fashionable but mistaken belief that it is bad for us. However, unless you suffer from a specific medical condition linking dairy to your symptoms, there is no evidence to suggest it is in any way detrimental to health; in fact, the opposite is true.

Full fat milk is rich in vitamin A, which contributes to normal vision, the maintenance of our skin, normal iron metabolism and our immune systems. This is why we hear so much about whole versus skimmed milk, because the latter has this valuable vitamin stripped out. Fat plays the role of messenger, and carries the fat-soluble vitamins and essential fatty acids, as well as contributing about half milk’s energy content.

The fat component of milk is made up of four hundred different fatty acids with a wide variety of effects, many of which are beneficial to our health. Fat, and in particular, saturated fat, is no longer to be feared, respected perhaps, but also relished. All the recipes in The Modern Dairy have been devised to keep saturated fat well within the lower limit of a woman’s recommended daily intake of 20g, and the majority of dishes contain no more than half that amount, which leaves plenty of scope for whatever else you eat that day.

As well as being a good source of fat-soluble vitamin A in the form of retinol and carotene, which promote good vision, whole milk also contains fat-soluble vitamin K, essential to blood clotting, and is another vitamin with a role to play in bone formation. It is also a good source of water-soluble B vitamins – B1 (thiamine), B2 (riboflavin), B3 (niacin), B5 (pantothenate), B6 (pyridoxine), B7 (biotin), B12 (cobalamin and related forms) and folate. Among the B vitamins’ essential functions, B12 is needed for the production of red blood cells and for nerve function, while B2 is a coenzyme that plays a role in releasing energy. The mineral iodine is needed to make thyroid hormones that contribute to our metabolism. Dairy is also a source of phosphorus and potassium. It is sometimes claimed that dairy contains lots of vitamin D, which isn’t entirely true,

It is sometimes claimed that dairy contains lots of vitamin D, which isn’t entirely true, unless it has been fortified, and that is sometimes the case given this micronutrient’s essential role in the absorption of calcium. Without vitamin D, the body cannot make use of calcium to grow or maintain healthy bones; it simply passes through the system unabsorbed. Most of our vitamin D is synthesised via sunlight and the best dietary sources for when sunlight is sparse in winter months are, egg yolks and oily fish – wild mushrooms too.

Most dairy products are affordable, in particular by comparison to sources of protein such as meat or fish. So here you have a complete food, that also offers infinite variety and scope for enjoyment – from the simple pleasure of a sliver of cheese with a select pickle, to the many different ways of including it in both sweet and savoury dishes.

 The Modern Dairy: nourishing recipes using milk, yogurt, cheese and cream by Annie Bell  is published by Kyle Books. Annie has a Master of Science degree in Human Nutrition.

Do you agree with Annie? Let us know in the comments!