Dairy remains one of the staples of a healthy, balanced diet, experts say.

“Diary benefits your bones and your teeth, making them stronger thanks to the calcium,” said Jackie Marsh, director of food and nutrition at Thibodaux Regional Medical Center. “It helps with bone growth, adds more vitamins to the body.”

Nonetheless, a study by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that on a given day, only 14.5 percent of adults consumed the USDA's recommended 3 cups of dairy. Nearly 80 percent of adults consumed some dairy, but less than the recommended amount.

So, what is dairy, anyway? Well, it's more than just milk. The USDA defines it as foods made from milk that retain their calcium content. That may include cheese, yogurt and, in moderation, even ice cream. Calcium fortified soy milk also falls into the dairy group. Foods made from milk that have little to no calcium, such as cream cheese, cream and butter, are not considered dairy under the guidelines.

The Agriculture Department says dairy is a key source of these nutrients:

Calcium: It's vital for building strong bones and healthy teeth.

Potassium: Yogurt, milk and soy milk are good sources of this mineral, which helps maintain healthy blood pressure.

Vitamin D: It also helps build and maintain strong bones.

Failure to get the appropriate among of dairy in the long-term has been linked to osteoporosis, Marsh said. The ailment causes a person's bones to become fragile and brittle.

Adequate dairy intake has been associated with a reduced risk for cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes, the USDA says.

Federal nutrition nutrition guidelines also recommend avoiding or limiting foods high in saturated fat, and that includes some cheeses and other dairy products.

The Agriculture Department offers handy tables that break down how to get in your three cups of dairy, including recommended portions, at my choosemyplate.gov/dairy.

-- Staff Writer Andrea Mujica can be reached at 850-1148 or amujica@houmatoday.com. Follow her o twitter @CationM.