Study’s lead author says evidence shows ‘type of dietary fat, or the source of dietary fat, is actually more important than the amount.
A higher consumption of dairy fat may be linked to a lower risk of cardiovascular disease, according to new research that suggests choosing full-fat dairy options is no worse for heart health.
The study, from an international team of experts, challenges the view that full-fat dairy products, such as cheese, yoghurt and milk, should be avoided because of their high saturated fat content.
Researchers assessed dairy fat intake in 4,150 Swedish 60-year-olds by measuring the blood concentration of certain fatty acids that are found in dairy foods.
They followed the participants for an average of 16.6 years, recording how many died or had heart attacks, strokes and other cardiovascular conditions.
Cardiovascular disease risk was the lowest for participants who had high levels of the dairy fatty acids. The researchers also found that higher intakes of dairy fat were not associated with an increased risk of death.
Lead author Dr Kathy Trieu from the George Institute for Global Health said fat intake and its link to heart health was more complex than previously thought.
“There’s increasing evidence to show that the type of dietary fat, or the source of dietary fat, is actually more important than the amount of fat,” she said.
“When we’re selecting dairy foods to buy, it’s less important to select the low-fat option,” Trieu said, advising that consumers instead avoid products with added sugar or sodium. “A very clear example of that is: it’s better to select unflavoured yoghurts rather than a low-fat flavoured yoghurt.”
The researchers said using biomarkers as a proxy for dairy fat intake was more reliable than depending on individuals to accurately self-report their eating habits. But the biomarkers could not distinguish what types of dairy products were consumed and whether they had different effects.
Cheese consumption, for example, has been previously linked to a lower risk of cardiovascular disease, while a large US study published in April has linked butter intake to a higher mortality risk.
“Cheeses include vitamin K, and these may be linked with cardioprotective benefits,” Trieu said, adding that more research was needed to understand the link between dairy foods and heart health.
In addition to the analysis in Sweden – where dairy consumption is among the highest globally – the researchers undertook a meta-analysis including 17 other studies, involving nearly 43,000 people in the UK, US and Denmark.
That broader analysis also linked higher dairy fat consumption to a lower risk of cardiovascular disease.
Trieu said the findings were broadly applicable to countries with a western pattern diet, such as Australia. But the researchers also suggested that “extrapolation of the findings to other ethnic groups should be done with caution”, as the vast majority of the 60-year-olds they followed were born in either Sweden or Finland.
A large 2018 study, conducted in 21 mainly low and middle-income countries, similarly found that consumption of dairy products may protect against heart disease and stroke.
One limitation of the Swedish study was that the participants’ blood biomarkers were only measured once, at the beginning of the research, reflecting their dietary fat intake at a specific point in time.
“Usually, we expect diet to not change that much,” Trieu said, acknowledging that dairy consumption habits could have fluctuated during the study period.
The research was published in the journal Plos Medicine.