Dairy Fat and Heart Disease: Surprising News
When I was a child, my mother always offered me a cup of whole-fat milk to start my day. As a teenager, I began drinking low-fat milk because I had heard it was healthier. I even drank fat-free milk when I was trying to lose weight, but it was never as satisfying as whole-fat milk. Now, as a young mom, I wonder what I should serve my daughter.
The benefit of consuming whole-fat milk up to age 2 is well-documented, but what should I serve her after age 2? A dairy farmer once enthusiastically told me that he and his family had been drinking whole-fat milk for years and not one of them had elevated cholesterol. As a nutrition student, I wanted to be able to speak confidently about dairy fats and heart disease. Which type of dairy – whole-fat or low-fat – would be best for my daughter?
I set out to answer that question with my master’s project at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. I reviewed the recent literature on how full-fat dairy products affect cardiovascular risk in populations without established heart disease or diabetes – including recent studies on the consumption of whole-fat milk, yogurt and cheese (but not butter, as it doesn’t include the essential nutrients found in other dairy foods, specifically calcium, potassium, vitamin D and high-quality protein). A panel of registered dietitians reviewed my analysis, graded the evidence and developed recommendations for practice. The findings could change the Dietary Guidelines for Americans regarding full-fat dairy.
The panel concluded that the recommendation for low-fat or fat-free dairy may be overly cautious and should be dropped from the guidelines, allowing Americans to choose whole-fat dairy products with confidence.
Here’s your quick guide to the studies and the science:
Milk Fat Improves Blood Lipids
- The consumption of whole-fat milk in teenagers was positively correlated with a higher HDL, or “protective,” cholesterol.
- In a clinical study, high intake of cheese raised HDL cholesterol and, therefore, is less atherogenic (or heart-clogging) than is a low-fat, high-carbohydrate diet.
- The effect of whole-fat milk raising HDL cholesterol may be due to the fatty acids (lauric and myristic) that are naturally found in milk fat.
- Recent research reported that the consumption of whole-fat milk was associated with lower levels of the artery-clogging fats triglycerides and very low-density lipoproteins, and with no significant increases in LDL, or “bad,” cholesterol.
Full-Fat Dairy Reduces the Risk of Cardiovascular Disease
- In clinical trials, the dairy fat biomarker pentadecanoic acid (15:0) was correlated with a reduced incidence of cardiovascular and coronary heart disease and heart attacks.
- The consumption of whole-fat milk, yogurt and cheese has not been associated with increased risk of developing cardiovascular disease.
- The consumption of full-fat cheese and yogurt has been associated with reducing risk of heart attacks.
Full-Fat Dairy is a Better Choice than Refined Carbohydrates
Lower-fat milk, yogurt and cheese are lower in fat and, therefore, calories, and when individuals consume lower-fat dairy, they tend to replace those lost calories with refined carbohydrates. Substituting refined carbohydrates for dairy fat has the negative effect of increasing the atherogenic fats, LDL cholesterol and triglycerides.
Reasons to Include Full-Fat Dairy Products
Dairy foods are an important source of calcium, potassium, vitamin D and high-quality protein, and full-fat versions have not been associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease in individuals without diabetes or established heart disease. Therefore, for my daughter and for many other Americans, whole-fat milk, yogurt and cheese are great options to meet nutrient needs.
Explore more about health benefits of dairy.
Put dairy into practice with great recipes.