If you’re like most Iowans, you don’t leave the grocery store without a gallon of milk in your cart.

More than one-half of Iowa households consume milk daily, according to the 2018 Iowa Farm Bureau Food and Farm Index. Iowans recognize the nutritional benefits of real dairy milk.

However, if you never liked the taste of non-fat or low-fat milk, then go ahead and choose reduced-fat or whole milk, says Stephanie Clark, a dairy food scientist at Iowa State University.

What’s more important is that you drink milk, at whatever fat level or flavor you like, she says.

Real dairy milk is one of the safest, most nutritious beverages available, Clark says. And the latest research confirms that the fat in dairy and animal-based proteins doesn’t make us “fat” or increase the risk of cardiovascular disease, Clark says.

“If you like 2 percent (milk), drink 2 percent. If you like whole (milk), drink whole,” Clark says. “The number of calories you get from milk is not the biggest source of calories in our diet.

“You have to be conscious of your diet and exercise and be active. But you don’t have to restrict (foods) so that you are unhappy,” she adds.

Real milk naturally offers a complete package of nine essential nutrients, including high-quality protein, calcium and vitamins A and D, Clark explains.

Plant-based beverages, such as almond drinks, are typically fortified with Vitamin D and calcium. However, these additives tend to sink to the bottom of the carton, Clark says.

Real dairy milk’s nutrients are naturally more bioavailable, meaning that our bodies can absorb them more easily, she explains. "You have to be conscious of your diet and exercise and be active. But you don't have to restrict (foods) so that you are unhappy.”

Dr. Stephanie Clark, dairy food scientist at Iowa State University

“If people care about natural, then they need to be thinking about dairy,” Clark says.

“If you look at the label of those (plant-based) products, you are going to see a long list of things added to those non-dairy beverages to try to get them as close as possible nutritionally as dairy,” she adds.

A growing body of research also shows that the fat in milk and dairy foods doesn’t contribute to weight gain and is actually protective of overall heart health, Clark says.

“Dairy fat is not bad for you in moderation,” Clark explains. “There are positive health outcomes of consuming dairy fat that have been realized in the last couple decades. The scientific literature is there, but now the popular press is finally catching up with it.”

Clark says research shows that dairy fat helps with satiety, making you feel fuller longer so you eat fewer calories overall.

Dairy consumption also contributes to a trimmer body and healthier distribution of body fat, Clark says. Regular milk drinkers tend to have less fat around their waist. Excess abdominal fat increases your risk of cardiovascular disease.

“The combination of nutrients — the protein and calcium and vitamin D — from milk seems to contribute to satiety, better body fat distribution and better health outcomes,” Clark says.

So if you’re wanting to lose weight, look at eating fewer processed foods and choosing whole foods that are nutrient-dense, like milk. Talk to a registered dietitian, not social media influencers, for guidance on healthy eating, Clark recommends.