Do you think consuming whole milk and other full-fat dairy products increases your risk of heart disease? If you answered yes, you’re not alone. Popular opinion — as well as the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), for that matter — has long perpetuated the idea that low-fat dairy is healthier in general and that whole milk and butter are more or less the enemy. But a new study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition debunks this longstanding myth.
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The study found that consuming full-fat milk and dairy products could actually cut an individual’s risk for cardiovascular disease and stroke. The findings support a growing body of evidence that full-fat dairy alone does not lead to such health issues, which contrasts significantly with long-standing recommendations from various governmental agencies to choose low-fat or no-fat dairy products as often as possible.
To reach their conclusion, researchers evaluated 3,000 adults age 65 and older over the course of 13 years. They began the study in 1992, measuring three different fatty acid levels in the participants’ blood over three different occasions — the first at the onset of the study in 1992, the second six years later and the third and final time at the 13-year mark — to determine their risk for coronary heart disease and stroke.
At the end of the study, they found that none of these fatty acids were linked to total mortality or cardiovascular disease. What’s more, researchers discovered that the participants who showed higher levels of these fatty acids, all of which are found in full-fat dairy, had a 42 percent lower chance of dying of stroke. And another type of fatty acid was linked to fewer deaths from cardiovascular disease.
These findings are not the first to suggest that full-fat dairy may even be a better option than skim. One 2015 study also examined the relationship between consumption of dairy and the risk of stroke and coronary disease, finding no tangible connection between the two, while a 2013 study, published in the Scandinavian Journal of Primary Health Care, actually found a health benefit to high dairy fat, linking intake to a reduced risk of central obesity in males.
“These findings are important because they showed that long-term consumption of full-fat dairy had no negative effect on heart disease,” says Roger E. Adams, Ph.D., Houston-based dietitian, nutritionist and founder of Eat Right Fitness. “Long-term studies like this are needed to show effects on health with any dietary change, as short-term dietary change studies are hard to draw good conclusions,” he tells LIVESTRONG.COM.
Nutrition experts agree that research like this is a step in the right direction and that it’s aiding in the recovery from the fat-free craze of the ’80s and ’90s. “Since the 1970s, public policy told us to restrict our calories and fat — and specifically our saturated fat intake — out of fear that it raises the risk of heart disease,” explains Abbey Sharp, registered dietician and founder of Abbey’s Kitchen. “It seems logical that less fat and less calories would lead to weight loss as well. However, we now know that not all saturated fats are the same and that there are a number of unique fats in dairy products that actually are very healthy for us.”
Higher-fat milks, for example, contain more omega-3s (the good kind of fat), which is not only more satiating, but keeps you fuller for longer. “And let’s not forget that the vitamin D in fortified milk products is fat soluble,” adds Sharp. “Consuming it with fat — like that found in whole milk — will lead to better absorption.”
Christen Cupples Cooper, Ed.D., RDN, founding director of Nutrition and Dietetics, Pace University, College of Health Professions, believes that there’s a bigger picture that we’re missing. “If one is consuming the right amount of calories to maintain a healthy weight and eating a variety of foods from all major food groups, plus exercising, most of us can moderate our risks of heart disease,” she tells LIVESTRONG.COM. “Full-fat dairy is unlikely to throw a wrench in an otherwise-healthy diet. However, if an individual is consuming too much fat and too many calories in general, which is the case for the majority of Americans, then consuming full-fat dairy is one opportunity for a cutback (lower-fat dairy might be a useful swap).”
In general, experts agree that full-fat dairy does have a place in an overall healthy and balanced diet. If an people are consuming excess fat in their diet, they may want to decrease their consumption of high-fat dairy, but if they maintain a healthy, well-balanced diet, there’s not enough research to support that high-fat dairy, in moderation, can lead to significant health issues.
What Do YOU Think?
Do you drink nonfat, low-fat or whole milk? Do you stay away from dairy altogether? Let us know in the comments!