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MILK

Dairy is fortified with vitamin D, which is crucial to helping your body absorb calcium.

You probably grew up guzzling milk. It's a solid source of protein, and it helps you build strong bones. Flash-forward a few decades, though, and it's no longer front and center in your fridge -- if it's in there at all. More and more people are going vegan or paleo and ditching dairy. Even if your diet doesn't prohibit milk, concerns about its link to acne, allergies and heart disease may have made you nix it.

Other foods have stepped up to fill the gap. The USDA, which suggests three servings of dairy a day, now includes substitutes like soymilk as sources of calcium.

However, recent studies on the health perks of dairy beg the question: Is it really necessary to give it up completely?

Learn what dairy does for you.

Turns out, milk still deserves its once-stellar reputation. "Dairy is an incredibly easy way to get a very high dose of essential vitamins and minerals," says Taylor Wallace, Ph.D., a professor in the department of nutrition and food studies at George Mason University. Dairy is a complete protein, with all the essential amino acids your body requires to function. Plus, dairy is fortified with vitamin D, which is crucial to helping your body absorb calcium.

Not only that, dairy is an excellent choice for active people. Low-fat chocolate milk has been shown to help with muscle recovery after endurance exercise, and people who drank two cups of skim milk after lifting weights lost more fat and gained more muscle than those who drank soy, according to a McMaster University study.

Milk does have certain downsides.

One of dairy's biggest negatives? The stomach problems it causes. Many people have trouble digesting it because they're intolerant of lactose, the type of natural sugar that milk and other dairy products contain.

Acne is another major concern for many people, who say they break out when they eat dairy. While there hasn't been a definitive study proving that dairy causes pimples, a growing volume of research suggests there's a link, according to a review in Practical Dermatology.

Here's the bottom line on milk.

If you choose to follow a dairy-free diet, you can get the benefits of milk elsewhere. "Most nondairy options are fortified with comparable amounts of calcium and vitamin D, and they're easy for your body to absorb," says Wallace.

For all the essential amino acids your body needs, drink soymilk, which is a complete protein. Prefer almond or coconut milk? Enjoy it with some whole-wheat toast. "Whole grains provide the other amino acids you require," says Wallace.

"B12, which keeps your red blood cells healthy and prevents anemia, is almost solely found in meat and dairy, so most vegetarians need a supplement [2.4 mcg a day]," says Wallace. "Dairy is also high in choline, which helps your body communicate with your brain and may prevent neurological disorders." You've got a good start if you eat eggs (one egg has about 150 mg choline), but be sure to take a supplement if you're vegan (425 mg/day is usually adequate).

If you want to add dairy back into your diet, Wallace suggests three 8-ounce servings of low-fat milk a day. Or mix and match foods to get your fill: snack on a cheese stick and eat Greek yogurt or cottage cheese.

(SHAPE is dedicated to helping you live a healthy and happy life! Shape your life. Eat right. Get Fit. Online at www.shape.com.)

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