If you’re trying to look after your heart, then avoiding fatty food and drink is definitely a good idea. But what about dairy products such as milk, cheese and yoghurt? You might think dairy contains a lot of fat and is therefore bad for your heart, but new research may turn that thinking on its head.
It’s clear that cutting back on fried and processed foods containing a lot of saturated fat lowers the level of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, or ‘bad’ cholesterol, in your blood. LDL cholesterol collects on the walls of your blood vessels and excessive build-up increases your risk of heart attack and stroke.
Dairy foods have often been fingered as the culprit for LDL cholesterol build-up because of their high saturated fat levels. No-fat or low-fat producers of milk, cheese, yoghurt and ice cream spruik the health benefits of their products.
But how much of the marketing is based on reality? Has full-fat dairy been unfairly maligned? It turns out that might be the case.
“Research into dairy has returned complex results,” the Heart Foundation says.
“Overall, milk, yoghurt and cheese have a ‘neutral’ effect on your heart health, meaning these foods don’t increase or decrease the risk of heart disease.”
Now, a new study has pushed dairy from being at best neutral for your heart health to possibly being good for it.
The study was an international collaboration between researchers from Australia, Sweden and the US. The researchers looked at 4150 Swedish men and women who regularly consumed dairy with a median age of 60.5. Sweden is the fourth-highest consumer of dairy products per capita in the world.
The participants had their blood levels measured for serum pentadecanoic acid , a fatty acid found mainly in dairy products that can be used to measure how much of your fat is coming directly from consuming dairy.
The participants were then monitored over an average of 16 years to see how many had heart attacks, strokes and other serious heart-related events.
They found that higher levels of this fatty acid (meaning the participant had consumed more dairy) were actually correlated with decreased numbers of heart incidents. It seems dairy could not just be neutral for your heart, but actually beneficial.
The results of the study were then compared with results of 17 similar studies from the US, Denmark and the UK for a total of just under 43,000 participants. The researchers found their findings were replicated in these studies as well.
“Our study suggests that cutting down on dairy fat or avoiding dairy altogether might not be the best choice for heart health,” lead author Dr Kathy Trieu says in a statement.
“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.”
While this is undoubtedly good news for dairy lovers, it still might not be time to reach for that punnet of ice cream just yet.
Dairy may be good for your heart but it really does depend on which dairy products you consume. Unflavoured milk and yoghurt are best, but large amounts of sugar are often added to flavoured dairy, which can nullify any health benefits. And butter and cream should be regarded as treats rather than staples.
The Heart Foundation recommends that milk, yoghurt and cheese be eaten as part of a heart-healthy diet, but most of the fat in your diet should come from fish, nuts and seeds, and healthy oils.
“Eat unflavoured yoghurt, which can make a great snack or breakfast option. Add fruit or nuts and seeds for extra flavour,” the foundation says.
“Swap butter for healthier alternatives, such as avocado, olive oil, or oil spreads. Try cottage or ricotta cheese on wholegrain crackers as a snack.”
Have you been cutting back on dairy to help your heart? Which dairy products do you think you might be able to eat and drink again? Let us know in the comments section below.
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Disclaimer: This article contains general information about health issues and is not advice.
For health advice, consult your medical practitioner.