Full-fat dairy products may be healthier than we thought

Cheese lovers, rejoice! The latest evidence suggests that whole dairy isn’t the health risk it’s long been made out to be and it may even improve some health markers.

By Sabrina Rogers-Anderson 

If you’re more of a simple flat white sort than a fancy almond milk latte type, we have some good news: you can have your whole milk and drink it too.

But, of course, there’s a “but”. While the latest evidence points to the fact that full-fat dairy isn’t the dietary devil we believe it to be, that doesn’t mean you should start chugging milk from the bottle like a teenage boy.

So, how much whole dairy can you get away with chowing down? Here’s everything you need to know.

Why we’ve been told to avoid full-fat dairy

Saturated fat has had a bad name since the “diet-heart hypothesis” - which claimed that dietary fat raised cholesterol levels and caused heart disease - was introduced in the 1950s. 

This eventually led health authorities around the world - including the World Health Organization (WHO) - to recommend eating reduced-fat dairy products to limit the amount of saturated fat we consume.

But recent reviews of the evidence have found that the original research on saturated fat was deeply flawed and, in subsequent clinical trials, saturated fat was never proven to cause heart disease.

What the latest research shows

Several well-designed studies have found that dairy products don’t increase the risk of heart disease and may even protect us against high blood pressure, stroke and type 2 diabetes. 

While some studies only found these neutral or protective relationships with reduced-fat dairy, others have found them with full-fat dairy too.

One 2019 study published in the International Journal of Cardiology discovered that not all saturated fats are created equal. When researchers analysed data from 75,000 people over 13 to 18 years, they found that the type of saturated fat found in meat increased the risk of heart attack while the type found in dairy products lowered participants’ risk. 

But despite the overwhelming evidence that their dairy recommendations aren’t accurate, the Australian Dietary Guidelines still advise that most of the dairy we consume be reduced-fat. The guidelines date back to 2013 and are currently under review.

Other medical bodies, including the Australian Heart Foundation and WHO, have already taken the latest research into account in their recommendations. But in the absence of clear-cut evidence, both organisations have taken a soft stance.

In a position statement on dairy and heart-healthy eating, the Heart Foundation said, “There is mixed evidence, but on balance it appears that milk, yoghurt and cheese have a neutral relationship with cardiovascular health. There is evidence that dairy foods and yoghurt have an inverse association with hypertension, stroke and type 2 diabetes risk. 

“Given the inconsistencies in the evidence for fat modified dairy products, there is not enough evidence to recommend fat modification (i.e. full fat over reduced fat products, or reduced fat over full fat products) for the general population.

“The evidence suggests that while adding dairy fat will not improve an eating pattern (i.e. by choosing full fat products), removing dairy fat (i.e. by choosing reduced fat products) to make room for fat from plant sources such as olives, nuts and seeds aligns with existing evidence to lower cardiovascular risk and improve lipid profiles.”

Similarly, WHO’s updated guidelines (2023) recommend replacing saturated fats with heart-healthy polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats from plant sources, or carbohydrates from foods that are high in fibre, such as whole grains, vegetables, fruits and pulses.

And, despite the evidence that not all saturated fats are as bad as once believed, WHO still recommends capping our daily intake at 10% of total energy. 

It seems that until there’s a large body of clear-cut evidence that full-fat dairy products aren’t harmful to our health, official recommendations will continue to err on the side of caution.

Health benefits of dairy

Dairy products provide several essential nutrients, including vitamin A, B12, riboflavin, calcium, potassium, magnesium, zinc, phosphorus, carbohydrates and protein. 

They also contribute to healthy ageing in two important ways.

Strengthen bones

Dairy is an excellent source of calcium, which helps maintain bone density and reduces the risk of osteoporosis and fractures. Some milks and dairy products are also fortified with vitamin D to help the body absorb calcium.

Women aged 50 and over should aim for 1300mg of calcium per day while men only need 1000mg until they turn 70, at which point they should increase their intake to 1300mg. 

Here is the calcium content of some common dairy foods:

  • 1 cup skim milk: 244mg of calcium
  • 1 cup full-fat milk: 236mg
  • 150g natural full-fat yoghurt: 207mg 
  • 30g hard cheese (such as cheddar): 240mg

Help maintain muscle mass

Unless we engage in strength training and eat enough protein, we lose 3% to 8% of our muscle mass every decade after the age of 30 and even more after 60. Known as sarcopenia, this age-related muscle loss can lead to frailty, falls, fractures, hospitalisations and surgeries that may be life-threatening.

Women aged 31 to 70 should aim for 0.75g of protein per kilogram of body weight each day and men should have 0.84g per kilogram of body weight. So, a person who weighs 75kg should have about 56g of protein a day.

In addition to lean meats and plant sources of protein, dairy products can contribute to your daily protein requirements:

  • 1 cup whole milk: 8.5 g of protein
  • 1 cup skim milk: 9g
  • 30g cheddar: 7.4g
  • 30g parmesan: 12.2g
  • 150g natural full-fat yoghurt: 9g

Some dairy products are better than others

According to the Heart Foundation, milk, cheese and yoghurt should be your go-to dairy products while cream, butter and ice cream should be limited.

“There is evidence that dairy fat from cheese and yoghurt does not raise LDL-C [“bad” cholesterol] in the same way that dairy fat from butter does; and evidence that LDL-C response to dairy fat is higher for those with elevated LDL-C,” notes the Foundation’s position statement.

“This suggests caution for the inclusion of butter, and higher fat dairy products, for people who would benefit from LDL-C lowering dietary interventions.

“The evidence for milk, cheese and yoghurt does not necessarily apply for cream, butter, ice-cream and dairy based desserts; products which are not a part of a heart-healthy eating pattern.”

The bottom line

Until official dietary guidelines are updated, most health experts will continue to recommend reduced-fat dairy over full-fat.

But if you have a weakness for Brie or a Greek yoghurt obsession, the evidence suggests that it’s safe to add a couple of full-fat portions of these foods to your daily diet.

If you have high cholesterol, you may be better off sticking to reduced-fat dairy and avoiding butter and cream as much as possible. When in doubt, speak to your GP.

Adding unsaturated fats to your diet, such as those found in fish, olive oil, nuts and seeds, is also a winning move. Your heart will thank you!

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