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Nicole Senior pulls the plug on hype and marketing spin to provide reliable, practical advice on food for health and enjoyment.

For years, health professionals have recommended reduced-fat dairy products over their full-fat counterparts as a more heart-friendly option. Yet recent studies are showing that saturated fats in full-fat dairy products may not be harmful to our cardiovascular health after all. Does the fat content of dairy products still matter? Let’s take a closer look at the evidence.

Until recently, scientific evidence suggested that saturated fats from any source were associated with an increased risk for cardiovascular disease (CVD). Recommendations were made by the US MyPlate guidelines and the Australian Dietary Guidelines to reduce saturated fat intake across all food groups, including meat and dairy products. Reduced fat dairy products were also recommended to help reduce kilojoule (calorie) intake for weight control. However, there are now questions being raised whether such advice is necessary. A cohort study of 222,234 people found saturated fats in dairy did not significantly increase CVD risk, and were less risky than saturated fats in meat. A meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials on the impact of dairy foods and dairy fat on cardio-metabolic risk found there is no apparent risk of harm from dairy consumption, irrespective of fat content. The authors concluded the advice to consume low-fat dairy foods wasn’t fully supported by the evidence. So, what’s going on here?

Dairy foods

 What’s special about dairy? Dairy products not only contain saturated fats, they are complex foods that also contain proteins, lactose, calcium and various vitamins, minerals and bioactives that may influence their impact on heart health. In emerging research, talking about food in its entirety rather than its component nutrients is referred to as the whole food matrix and it appears to be important in the case of dairy; a case of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. For example, the probiotics in yoghurt and cheese produced during the fermentation process may mitigate cardiovascular risk. Another study found that calcium might be protective against stroke. We need future research to investigate these mitigating components.

Are dairy products fattening? According to the evidence, dairy foods are probably not fattening, but they probably don’t help with weight loss either, although a meta-analysis showed they can help increase satiety and studies with yoghurt have shown weight control benefits. We know dairy foods like milk and yoghurt have a low GI, and that’s a plus.

A recent systematic literature review has recommended that more research is needed to determine if the amount of fat in dairy products influences weight gain. But maybe we should stop thinking about the fat content of a food and think more about the whole food. Dairy foods are nutrient dense and many of us don’t eat the recommended amount. You can’t go wrong swapping sugary drinks, confectionary, cakes and cookies for milk, cheese and yoghurt and you’ll feel satisfied after eating them. For weight-loss, reduced-fat, reduced-kilojoule dairy products might be a better option to meet calcium requirements within a smaller energy allowance.

Why is this important? The dairy sector says consumers prefer whole milk and that health professionals telling people to drink reduced fat milk, may in fact make them decide to drink less milk or stop drinking milk altogether because they don’t like the taste. Considering dairy foods are the richest source of bioavailable calcium and most of us don’t get enough calcium, this is a valid concern. On the other hand, reduced fat milk (not fat-free/skim milk, which tastes very different) has become so common perhaps we don’t miss the whole stuff anymore. When it comes to yoghurt, reduced fat yoghurt can have more sugars (natural and added) and starch thickeners to make up for the flavor and texture of whole milk, and may have a similar kilojoule content so this swap may not be an improvement. There may also be satiety benefits to the fat in whole dairy products too.

The un-plugged truth

  • When it comes to dairy food, the other good stuff in it appears to offset the adverse effects of the saturated fat on the heart
  • Dairy products (milk, yoghurt and cheese), regardless of fat content, have important health benefits and should be included as part of a healthy balanced diet.
  • For those wanting to lose weight, reduced-fat dairy products may help you to meet your calcium requirements while maintaining a lower energy intake.

–Thanks to Rachel Ananin AKA for her assistance with this article.

Nicole Senior

 Nicole Senior is an Accredited Nutritionist, author, consultant, cook, food enthusiast and mother who strives to make sense of nutrition science and delights in making healthy food delicious.

Contact: You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram or check out her website.