Is full-cream dairy bad for your heart? 

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The advice for many years was to avoid full-cream dairy for good heart health. 

The rationale behind this recommendation was that saturated fat impacted cholesterol levels, so whole-milk dairy was thought to elevate serum cholesterol due to its significant saturated levels (2.3g/100ml).

However, recent research shows that it might not be so clear-cut. Some studies show that the link between whole-milk dairy such as milk, yoghurt and cheese and heart health is mixed; both positive and negative effects were found. Meanwhile, some evidence suggests a ‘neutral’ relationship between whole-milk dairy foods and heart disease risk.

Confusing, right? Let’s chew the fat on full-cream dairy.

We often oversimplify nutrition by focusing on single nutrients. However, the reality is that we don’t eat vitamins, minerals, fat, protein or carbs in isolation; we eat whole foods. 

Nutrition scientists have recently revealed that a food’s nutrient composition does not always predict its health effect. Dairy foods such as milk and cheese are the perfect example. It’s why dairy is a core food group!

Dairy foods have intricate biochemical structures containing macronutrients, vitamins, minerals and other components. Nutrition science is now studying how the interplay between these nutrients and a food’s physical makeup may influence our health. These interactions may help to offset any negative attributes arising from the saturated fat or salt content. In the paradoxical case of dairy, scientists call this the dairy matrix, which illustrates the evolution of nutrition science over recent decades.

Dairy foods are highly nutritious. They contain over ten nutrients essential for our general health, nervous system and muscle function and, of course, bone health. Dairy foods are a rich source of vitamins A, B1, and B12, calcium, potassium, magnesium, zinc, phosphorous, and protein. 

Selection of dairy foods

The dairy matrix at work can be seen clearly when we compare the calcium uptake from dairy foods to the calcium absorption from supplements. Studies show that calcium from dairy foods helps build bigger and stronger bones than supplemental forms of calcium. Nutrition scientists believe that the phosphorous and protein found in dairy foods enhance bone calcium uptake. 

The effects of dairy foods extend beyond the benefits of individual nutrients. So, despite having a high saturated fat and salt content, dairy is greater than the sum of its parts.

When scientists began looking at dairy foods through a whole foods lens, they found that eating cheese and yoghurt and drinking milk didn’t always increase one’s risk of heart disease. Some evidence shows these foods may even lower it. And there’s research to show that dairy helps with weight management and can even help to reduce the risk of diabetes, high blood pressure and stroke despite its sodium and saturated fat content. 

Latte art

So should you switch from reduced fat to full cream milk dairy? The American Heart Association still recommends reduced-fat milk, cheese and yoghurt for the general population, but this is a fascinating area to watch. Research is continually building on our knowledge of the subject. Interestingly, the Australian National Heart Foundation has recently revised its position statement to advise that only those people with heart disease or elevated cholesterol should choose reduced-fat dairy products. For everyone else, it’s a matter of personal preference.

The issue of dairy fat is a polarising one.

In any case, there is a good reason why the Australian Dietary Guidelines recommend that we eat three serves of dairy every day. Dairy foods are a gift for more than just your skeleton. Your heart, waistline and, of course, your tastebuds will be grateful, too. 

So, whether you choose full-cream milk or reduced-fat dairy, one thing is for sure, wear your milk moustache with pride.

Child drinking milk

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