Low-Fat Dairy may not be the Only Heart-Healthy Option, According to a New Study

New research among the world’s biggest dairy users found that those who consumed more dairy fat, as measured by fatty acid levels in the blood, had a lower risk of cardiovascular disease than those who consumed less. Higher dairy fat intake was not linked to an increased risk of death.

Researchers then integrated the findings of this study, which included slightly over 4,000 Swedish individuals, with findings from 17 other studies to create the most comprehensive data to date on the link between dairy fat consumption and the risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD) and death.

With dairy consumption on the rise around the world, Dr. Matti Marklund of The George Institute for Global Health, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, and Uppsala University said that a deeper knowledge of the health implications was required.

Many studies have relied on participants remembering and recording the amounts and types of dairy meals they’ve consumed, which is particularly problematic considering how widely dairy is used.

“Instead, we measured blood levels of certain fatty acids, or fat ‘building blocks that are found in dairy foods, which gives a more objective measure of dairy fat intake that doesn’t rely on memory or the quality of food databases,” he added.

“We found those with the highest levels actually had the lowest risk of CVD. These relationships are highly interesting, but we need further studies to better understand the full health impact of dairy fats and dairy foods.”

Sweden has one of the highest dairy and dairy product consumption rates in the world. Researchers from Sweden, the United States, and Australia worked together to measure dairy fat consumption in 4150 Swedish 60-year-olds by analyzing blood levels of a fatty acid present primarily in dairy foods and so may be used to indicate dairy fat intake.

They were then tracked for an average of 16 years to observe how many had heart attacks, strokes, or other significant circulatory events, as well as how many died from any reason.

After statistically controlling for other known CVD risk variables such as age, income, lifestyle, dietary habits, and other conditions, those with high levels of the fatty acid had the lowest CVD risk (reflecting high intake of dairy fats). There was no increased risk of mortality from any cause in those with the highest levels.

While some dietary guidelines continue to suggest consumers choose low-fat dairy products, others have moved away from that advice, instead suggesting dairy can be part of a healthy diet with an emphasis on selecting certain dairy foods for example, yogurt rather than butter or avoiding sweetened dairy products that are loaded with added sugar.

Dr. Marklund

The findings, according to Dr. Marklund, show the uncertainty of research in this area, which is reflected in dietary recommendations.

“While some dietary guidelines continue to suggest consumers choose low-fat dairy products, others have moved away from that advice, instead suggesting dairy can be part of a healthy diet with an emphasis on selecting certain dairy foods for example, yogurt rather than butter or avoiding sweetened dairy products that are loaded with added sugar,” he said.

These findings were verified in other groups after combining these data with 17 other research including about 43,000 participants from the United States, Denmark, and the United Kingdom.

“While the findings may be partly influenced by factors other than dairy fat, our study does not suggest any harm of dairy fat per se,” Dr. Marklund said.

Dr. Kathy Trieu of The George Institute for Global Health, the study’s lead author, said that some dairy meals, particularly fermented items, have previously been linked to heart health advantages.

“Increasing evidence suggests that the health impact of dairy foods may be more dependent on the type such as cheese, yoghurt, milk, and butter rather than the fat content, which has raised doubts if avoidance of dairy fats overall is beneficial for cardiovascular health,” she said.

“Our study suggests that cutting down on dairy fat or avoiding dairy altogether might not be the best choice for heart health.”

“It is important to remember that although dairy foods can be rich in saturated fat, they are also rich in many other nutrients and can be a part of a healthy diet. However, other fats like those found in seafood, nuts, and non-tropical vegetable oils can have greater health benefits than dairy fats,” Dr. Trieu added.