New research shows people at risk for colon cancer may have another reason to consume at least three servings of dairy products per day. A study published in Nutrition and Cancer indicates that low-fat dairy foods, such as milk, cheese and yogurt, may be powerful tools in reducing the risk of colon cancer, the third leading cause of cancer deaths in the United States.

In the clinical trial, 40 adults with a history of colorectal polyps — a risk factor for colon cancer — were assigned to either a calcium supplement group or a low-fat dairy group. Those in the calcium supplement group received a supplement of 900 mg of calcium daily. The supplement was in addition to their usual intake of 600 mg of calcium from food. That gave them a total daily calcium intake of approximately 1,500 mg. Those in the dairy foods group consumed roughly three additional servings of low-fat dairy foods per day –—such as low-fat milk, yogurt, ice cream and cheeses — for a total of approximately 1,300 mg of calcium per day.

Both groups had significant reduction in the growth of abnormal cells, which lead to colorectal polyps, and eventually may lead to colon cancer. This study helped to establish that low-fat dairy foods, such as milk, cheese and yogurt, may also be helpful.

“Our study found that increasing calcium consumption from sources including milk, cheese and yogurt may reduce the risk of colon cancer by slowing the abnormal growth of cells that eventually may lead to colon cancer,” said Peter R. Holt, the study’s lead researcher. Holt is a senior scientist at the American Health Foundation and a professor of medicine emeritus at Columbia University.

This finding is consistent with a previous study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, which also found that increased intake of low-fat dairy foods may have returned some precancerous colon cells toward a more normal state.

“We know from past studies that calcium and vitamin D may play an important role in the fight against colon cancer,” said Holt, “but our findings are particularly exciting because they show that getting these nutrients from natural foods may provide similar benefits.”

According to government statistics, however, most Americans consume only 1 to 2 servings of dairy foods daily, rather than the recommended 3 servings. “Calcium-rich dairy foods such as milk, cheese and yogurt are the preferred sources of calcium and they taste better than a pill,” said Molly Pelzer, a registered dietitian for the National Dairy Council. “By making a few adjustments to your diet, it’s easy to get 3-a-day of dairy and reap its many health benefits.”

Pelzer recommends these simple strategies to help incorporate more dairy into the diet:

  • Start the day off right with granola, yogurt and fresh fruit, or cereal with low-fat milk. It’ll help give you fuel for the day and keep you feeling full until lunchtime.
  • Top vegetables, salads, chili and spaghetti with shredded low-fat cheeses for a flavorful and nutrient-rich addition to your meals.
  • Boost nutrient intake by mixing a smoothie of your favorite flavored low-fat milks, fruits and crushed ice.
  • Fill your fridge with single-serve containers of flavored low-fat milks, string cheeses and portable yogurts. They make for convenient snacks, even when you’re on the go.
  • Make a low-fat potato or broccoli soup with low-fat milk. Or try a rice pudding with low-fat milk and raisins or peaches.

National Dairy Council