According to a study, high-fat dairy products may be heart healthy.

September 19, 2022

It is typically advised to consume low-fat or fat-free dairy products for optimal heart health. The American Heart Association recommends that this rule applies to desserts and ice cream as well. This recommendation is based on the organization's long-held belief that because these foods are high in saturated fat, which has been linked to higher levels of low-density lipoprotein cholesterol (LDL), they increase the risk of cardiovascular disease. A recent study published in PLOS Medicine reveals that this might not be as simple as it first appears.

About the Study

4,150 Swedish men and women in their early 60s, who are thought to be at a higher risk for cardiovascular disease, were examined by researchers. Sweden was chosen because, in comparison to other countries, it has a very high dairy consumption rate. The study monitored the number of deaths, heart attacks, and strokes throughout 16 years.

Researchers relied instead on analyzing levels of fatty acids in participants' blood, which would provide more information about dairy fat and its effects and remove restrictions associated with asking individuals to recall what they ate. To include data from populations with both a higher and lower average dairy consumption, they also conducted a systematic review and meta-analysis on 18 studies, including this new cohort study. They discovered that, in contrast to popular belief, those with the highest levels of dairy fat intake had the lowest risk of cardiovascular disease. The findings seem to suggest that you may not need to rely solely on low-fat or fat-free dairy if you want to maintain heart health, even if they noted that further research is necessary to corroborate the findings.

Choices Matter

According to lead author Kathy Trieu, Ph.D., research fellow in the Food Policy Division of the George Institute for Global Health, not all high-fat dairy products should be viewed as equally protective. In terms of particularly beneficial types, fermented types like yogurt or kefir may be especially potent because they can support gut health, which has been linked in previous studies to better cardiovascular function.

According to a study published in the American Journal of Hypertension, hypertensive men and women who consume at least two servings of yogurt per week have a 21% decreased chance of developing cardiovascular disease, respectively.

“Increasingly, we see evidence that the health impact of dairy foods may be dependent on type rather than fat content,” she says. “That’s reflected in our study as well because it suggests that cutting down on dairy fat or avoiding dairy altogether may not be the best choice for heart health.”

Additionally, Dr. Trieu advises staying away from goods that are highly sweetened with additional sugars since this may negate the heart-healthy benefits. A larger intake of added sugar is linked to a higher risk of cardiovascular disease, including an earlier death from the condition, according to one study published in JAMA Internal Medicine.

Role of Saturated Fat

The most recent study questions whether all saturated fats are created equal, but it is not the first to do so. Research from the International Journal of Cardiology suggests that the type of saturated fats we consume affects our risk of heart attacks. About 75,000 people's data were examined by researchers in the UK and Denmark, concentrating on saturated fat consumption and the frequency of myocardial infarction over a 13- to 18-year period

They discovered a greater risk in people whose diets contained more longer-chain saturated fats, which are often found in meats, and fewer shorter-chain saturated fats, which are frequently found in dairy products.

“Previous research showed that different types of saturated fats can affect lipid levels in the blood, such as LDL cholesterol and the ratio of total-to-HDL cholesterol, differently,” says the study’s co-author, Ivonne Sluijs, PhD, of University Medical Center Utrecht at Utrecht University in the Netherlands. “That ratio is a more important risk factor, and so it’s crucial to look at how different types of saturated fats affect that.”

According to their findings, substituting palmitic and stearic acids, the most commonly consumed saturated fats, with other options, especially those derived from plants, may have the greatest health benefits. In general, she says this means you can enjoy full-fat dairy products but also make sure to include other nutritious foods in your diets such as whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and nuts.

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