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Even High-Fat Dairy May Be Heart Healthy, Study Suggests

Choosing yogurt


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Key Takeaways

  • Longstanding advice for cardiovascular health is to choose low-fat dairy, but new research suggests higher-fat options may reduce heart risks.
  • Researchers noted the results are important because dairy consumption is increasing worldwide.
  • Previous research suggests saturated fat may not be as bad as once thought, as long as you pick the right kinds.

For better heart health, it is usually advised to consume low-fat or fat-free dairy products. The American Heart Association suggests this should be the case even for desserts and ice cream.

These suggestions are rooted in a longstanding belief that because these choices are high in saturated fat—which has been associated with increased low-density lipoprotein cholesterol (LDL) levels—that consuming these foods is connected to a higher risk of cardiovascular disease. However, a new study in PLOS Medicine suggests this may not be as straightforward as it seems.

About the Study

Researchers looked at 4,150 Swedish men and women in their early 60s, an age group considered at a higher risk when it comes to cardiovascular health. They selected Sweden because dairy consumption there is particularly high compared to other parts of the world. The study had a 16-year timeframe that tracked how many had strokes, heart attacks, and death during that period.

To reduce limitations presented by asking participants to recall what they ate, researchers relied instead on measuring levels of fatty acids in their blood, which would give more insight into dairy fat and its effects. They also conducted a systematic review and meta-analysis on 18 studies (including this new cohort study) to include data from populations with both a higher and lower average dairy consumption.

They found that contrary to prevailing advice, those with the highest levels of dairy fat intake had the lowest risk of cardiovascular disease. Although they concluded that more research needs to be done to confirm the findings, the results seem to suggest that you may not need to rely on low-fat or fat-free dairy alone if you want to stay heart healthy.

Choices Matter

One caveat to the findings is that not all high-fat dairy products should be considered equally protective, according to lead author Kathy Trieu, PhD, research fellow in the Food Policy Division of the George Institute for Global Health.

Kathy Trieu, PhD

Increasingly, we see evidence that the health impact of dairy foods may be dependent on type rather than fat content.

— Kathy Trieu, PhD

In terms of particularly beneficial types, fermented types such as yogurt or kefir may be especially potent because they can support gut health, which has been linked in previous studies to better cardiovascular function.

For example, a study in the American Journal of Hypertension found that hypertensive men who eat at least two servings of yogurt per week had a 21% lower risk—and hypertensive women had a 17% lower risk—of developing cardiovascular disease.

“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.”

Dr. Trieu also suggests avoiding products that are heavily sweetened with added sugars, because that may cancel out the heart-healthy advantages. One study in JAMA Internal Medicine, for example, found that a higher intake of added sugar is associated with cardiovascular disease risk, including early mortality from the disease.

Role of Saturated Fat

The recent study also throws into question whether all saturated fats are equal, but it’s not the first to question that cut-all-fats approach.

Ivonne Sluijs, PhD

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.

— Ivonne Sluijs, PhD

According to research published in the International Journal of Cardiology, it is the type of saturated fats we eat that can boost heart attack risk. Researchers looked at data from about 75,000 people in the U.K. and Denmark, focusing on saturated fat intake and myocardial infarction incidence over a 13-to-18-year period.

They found a higher risk in those whose diets had more longer-chain saturated fats, typically found in meats, and fewer shorter-chain saturated fats, often seen 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.”

Based on their results, the biggest benefits may be to substitute intake of the most abundantly consumed saturated fats—palmitic and stearic acids—with other alternatives, particularly those that are plant-based, she says.

In general, she says that means you can have your full-fat dairy, but also be sure to add in other healthy choices to your dietary mix, including whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and nuts.

What This Means For You

New research suggests you do not need to eat only low-fat and fat-free dairy to protect your heart since high-fat dairy may also be protective. But it is also important to choose products without a high amount of added sugars. Before changing your eating plan, talk to a healthcare provider such as a registered dietitian for advice on how to meet your nutritional goals.

 

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6 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. DiNicolantonio JJ, O'Keefe JH. Effects of dietary fats on blood lipids: a review of direct comparison trials. Open Heart. 2018 Jul 25;5(2):e000871. doi: 10.1136/openhrt-2018-000871.

  3. Trieu K, Bhat S, Dai Z, et al. Biomarkers of dairy fat intake, incident cardiovascular disease, and all-cause mortality: A cohort study, systematic review, and meta-analysis. Basu S, ed. PLoS Med. 2021;18(9):e1003763. doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.1003763

  4. Buendia JR, Li Y, Hu FB, et al. Regular yogurt intake and risk of cardiovascular disease among hypertensive adultsAmerican Journal of Hypertension. 2018;31(5):557-565. doi:10.1093/ajh/hpx220

  5. Yang Q, Zhang Z, Gregg EW, Flanders WD, Merritt R, Hu FB. Added sugar intake and cardiovascular diseases mortality among US adultsJAMA Intern Med. 2014;174(4):516. doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2013.13563

  6. Praagman J, Vissers LET, Mulligan AA, et al. Consumption of individual saturated fatty acids and the risk of myocardial infarction in the UK and a Danish cohortInternational Journal of Cardiology. 2019;279:18-26. doi:10.1016/j.ijcard.2018.10.064