Low-fat dairy may not be the only heart healthy option, study suggests

Researchers found that higher intakes of dairy fat were not associated with an increased risk of death.

Glass of milk
Glass of milk

People with higher intakes of dairy fat may be at lower risk of cardiovascular disease compared to those with low intakes, a new study suggests.

The research conducted amongst the world’s biggest consumers of dairy foods also found that higher intakes of dairy fat were not associated with an increased risk of death.

Researchers combined the results of the study in just over 4,000 Swedish adults with those from 17 similar studies in other countries.

Dr Matti Marklund, from The George Institute for Global Health, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, and Uppsala University, said that with dairy consumption on the rise, a better understanding of the health impact was needed.

He added: “Many studies have relied on people being able to remember and record the amounts and types of dairy foods they’ve eaten, which is especially difficult given that dairy is commonly used in a variety of foods.

“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.

“We found those with the highest levels actually had the lowest risk of CVD (cardiovascular disease).

“These relationships are highly interesting, but we need further studies to better understand the full health impact of dairy fats and dairy foods.”

Researchers say Sweden has some of the highest dairy and dairy product consumption in the world.

An international collaboration between researchers in Sweden, the US and Australia assessed dairy fat consumption in 4,150 Swedish 60-year-olds by measuring blood levels of a particular fatty acid.

The acid is mainly found in dairy foods and therefore can be used to reflect intake of dairy fat.

They were then followed up for an average of 16 years to see how many had heart attacks, strokes and other serious circulatory events, and how many died from any cause during this time.

After adjusting for other known CVD risk factors including age, income, lifestyle, dietary habits, and other diseases, the CVD risk was lowest for those with high levels of the fatty acid, researchers found.

Those with the highest levels had no increased risk of death from all causes.

Dr Marklund said the findings highlight the uncertainty of evidence in this area, which is reflected in dietary guidelines.

He added: “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, yoghurt rather than butter – or avoiding sweetened dairy products that are loaded with added sugar.”

The researchers combined the results with 17 other studies involving a total of almost 43,000 people from the US, Denmark, and the UK to confirm their findings in other populations.

Dr Duane Mellor, registered dietitian and lead for nutrition and evidence based medicine, Aston Medical School, Aston University, said: “Overall, this is another study which suggests potential reduction in risk of heart disease with consumption of dairy products.

“Perhaps it is time to be more clear with the public about the effect of dairy fat on cardiovascular health, and that it does not need to be avoided, especially cheese and yoghurt which as well as being sources of protein and calcium have been consistently linked to reduced risk of cardiovascular disease.

“The evidence for butter is less clear as this can lack these beneficial components, and the extra fat and calories should factor into decisions about food intake.”

The research is published in the Plos Medicine journal.

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