Full-Fat Dairy May Actually Be Healthy for Your Heart

Key Takeaways

  • A new study found a potential association between higher dairy fat intake and a lower risk of cardiovascular disease.
  • However, the study was observational—meaning that the researchers cannot conclude causality between fatty acid biomarkers in participants’ blood and their risk for heart disease.
  • The current guidelines from the American Heart Association (AHA) recommend that most people focus on including low-fat and nonfat dairy sources in their diets to promote heart health.

A study published in PLOS Medicine found an association between higher intakes of dairy fat and a lower risk of cardiovascular disease. The new findings are at odds with most heart-healthy diet recommendations, which focus on low-fat or non-fat dairy to promote cardiovascular health.

The research was conducted in two parts. The first part was a cohort study that followed more than 4,000 Swedish adults for over 16 years.

At the beginning of the study, the researchers examined the fatty acid levels of the participants based on their blood samples and collected information about their lifestyle.

They also monitored health registries in Sweden to determine which participants developed cardiovascular disease or died in the follow-up period. The findings suggested that the more fatty acids participants had in their blood or fat tissue, the lower their risk of cardiovascular disease appeared to be.

When comparing the new data to 17 other studies, the researchers noted similar results.

AHA Heart-Healthy Diet

The American Heart Association (AHA) currently recommends that healthy adults consume “2–3 servings of fat-free or low-fat dairy products” per day. These sources could include:

  • Fat-free, zero-fat, no-fat, or nonfat milk
  • 0.5%–1% low-fat or light milk
  • Fat-free or low-fat yogurt
  • Low-fat cheese
  • Fat-free or low-fat ice cream

The guidelines are based on the research that has connected saturated fat intake with an increased risk for heart disease. Examples of foods with a lot of saturated fat are whole-fat milk, butter, cheese, cream, and many animal products.

Should You Change Your Diet?

The new research doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s time to indulge in high-fat dairy foods.

Matti Marklund, PhD, senior research fellow of food policy at The George Institute for Global Health and co-author of the study, says the researchers still don’t know the mechanisms behind the association between dairy fat and heart health. They’re uncertain whether dairy fat was the true cause for a lower risk of heart disease.

Therefore, they “wouldn’t change any dietary recommendations just based on one study,” Marklund tells Verywell.

Other experts agree with Marklund that it wouldn’t be wise to change dietary guidelines based on a single study—particularly one that was observational.

Michelle Routhenstein, MS, RD, a cardiology dietitian and owner of Entirely Nourished, says that the study “doesn’t show causation” between dairy fat and heart health.

The AHA recommends replacing saturated fat in your diet with healthier monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, like fish and nuts. Routhenstein says that choosing low-fat dairy sources is a good way to reduce saturated fat intake.

“We know from previous research that fat-free or low-fat dairy may provide some cardiovascular benefit when consumed with a regular plant-forward, heart-healthy diet,” says Routhenstein. “This is due to certain cardioprotective nutrients that dairy has in it, particularly magnesium, potassium, calcium, and probiotics.”

If you don’t like dairy or don’t tolerate it, there are plenty of dairy-free ways to help lower your risk of cardiovascular disease.

“You can still get all of these nutrients through other heart-healthy foods,” says Routhenstein, “But it needs to be planned out accordingly in order to ensure nutrient sufficiency.”

To lower your saturated fat intake while still getting all the nutrients that your body needs, the AHA says to make sure that your diet is rich in whole grains, fruits, vegetables, fish, nuts, poultry, and low-fat dairy.

In addition to what you eat, there are other factors that affect your heart health. Routhenstein says that hydration, exercise, sleep, and stress management are all important parts of a heart-healthy lifestyle.

Limitations and Future Research

Since the study was observational, Marklund says that scientists cannot use it to draw conclusions about the causality between fatty acid biomarkers and cardiovascular disease risk. Randomized control trials are needed to understand the mechanisms behind the association.

Marklund also warns against making generalizations about the study’s results. While the findings are interesting, the study had several limitations.

Most of the available research was conducted in the United States and Northern and Western Europe, which means additional studies would be necessary to determine whether the same results would be seen in a broader population.

The use of biomarkers was another interesting component of the new study. Evaluating biomarkers in blood samples may have been more accurate than relying on the dietary questionnaire alone, but the science isn’t perfect.

While the researchers do believe the biomarkers are a good indicator of dairy fat levels, there’s a chance that the data reflected something else. The biomarkers cannot distinguish the sources of dairy fat.

“[Dairy fat] could come from other sources. They’re present in fish to some extent,” Marklund says, adding that the body could produce fatty acid without external consumption as well.

“Some dietary recommendations have shifted away from the focus on the fat content to the type of dairy,” says Marklund. “Dairy can contain a lot of sodium which is not good for heart health. You also have flavored milk and flavored yogurt that could contain quite a high amount of added sugar. It’s more complicated than just the fat content.”

There’s also evidence that fermented dairy sources might be beneficial for heart health, but again, more research is needed.

“It’s a complicated issue,” says Marklund. “Diet and health can be complicated to study. And dairy and health might be even more complicated. Our study is one part of this big puzzle.”

What This Means For You

A new observational study on the association between dairy fat intake and heart health offers an interesting path for future research, but the researchers say the findings are not solid enough to justify making changes to dietary recommendations just yet.

A heart-healthy lifestyle is about more than your diet; your physical activity levels, sleep, and other habits are also important aspects to consider.

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