SYDNEY — Could a little extra butter actually be good for your heart? A new study reveals that consuming dairy fat from products like butter, cream, and cheese could prevent a heart attack.
An international team finds people who consume higher levels of these fats are less likely to develop cardiovascular disease. For years, experts have urged adults to skip fat laden dairy foods, including milk, to stay healthy. Now, for the first time, scientists have measured intakes by levels of fatty acids in the blood.
“Many studies have relied on people being able to remember and record the amounts and types of dairy foods they have eaten, which is especially difficult given dairy is commonly used in a variety of foods,” says study co-author Dr. Matti Marklund from Uppsala University, in a statement.
“Instead, we measured blood levels of certain fatty acids, or fat ‘building blocks’ that are found in dairy foods, which gives a more objective measure of dairy fat intake that doesn’t rely on memory or the quality of food databases,” Dr. Marklund continues. “We found those with the highest levels actually had the lowest risk of CVD.”
More dairy fat can reduce risk of death
The findings, published in the journal PLOS Medicine, add to growing evidence in favor of unaltered full fat foods. The results come from a review of more than 4,000 Swedish adults — who are among the world’s biggest consumers of dairy products.
The team confirmed their findings by pooling data from 17 other studies involving almost 43,000 participants in the United States, United Kingdom, and Denmark. Dr. Marklund says with dairy consumption on the rise globally, nutritional scientists need a better understanding of the impact dairy fat has on health. Higher intakes of dairy fat did not have a link to an increased risk of death among the participants.
Researchers assessed dairy fat consumption in the group of Swedish 60-year-olds by measuring blood levels of a particular fatty acid. This substance generally appears in dairy foods and is therefore useful in reflecting intake of dairy fat. Study authors tracked the group for an average of 16 years to see how many had heart attacks, strokes, and other serious circulatory events. They also looked at how many died from any cause during this time.
The CVD risk was lowest for those with high levels of the fatty acid, coming from a high intake of dairy fats. The results remained the same after accounting for factors including age, income, lifestyle, dietary habits, and other illnesses. Moreover, those with the highest levels had no increased risk of death from all causes.
Clearing up confusing diet advice
Dr. Marklund believes the findings highlight the uncertainty of evidence in this area, which translates to sometimes conflicting dietary guidelines.
“While some dietary guidelines continue to suggest consumers choose low-fat dairy products, others have moved away from that advice, instead suggesting dairy can be part of a healthy diet with an emphasis on selecting certain dairy foods – for example, yoghurt rather than butter – or avoiding sweetened dairy products that are loaded with added sugar,” Dr. Marklund explains.
When researchers combined the results with the other studies, the same pattern emerged.
“While the findings may be partly influenced by factors other than dairy fat, our study does not suggest any harm of dairy fat per se,” Dr. Marklund tells SWNS.
Which dairy items help the most?
Lead author Dr. Kathy Trieu of The George Institute for Global Health in Australia notes that previous studies show the consumption of some dairy foods, especially fermented products, benefit the heart.
“Increasing evidence suggests the health impact of dairy foods may be more dependent on the type – such as cheese, yoghurt, milk, and butter – rather than the fat content, which has raised doubts if avoidance of dairy fats overall is beneficial for cardiovascular health,” she adds in a statement to SWNS. “Our study suggests that cutting down on dairy fat or avoiding dairy altogether might not be the best choice for heart health.”
“It is important to remember although dairy foods can be rich in saturated fat, they are also rich in many other nutrients and can be a part of a healthy diet,” Dr. Trieu continues. “However, other fats like those found in seafood, nuts, and non-tropical vegetable oils can have greater health benefits than dairy fats.”
“These relationships are highly interesting, but we need further studies to better understand the full health impact of dairy fats and dairy foods,” Dr. Marklund concludes.
Last year, a study of 140,000 people from 21 countries conducted over nine years found two helpings of full fat dairy products a day lowered the risk of diabetes, high blood pressure, and obesity – which can all lead to heart disease. Cardiovascular disease is the world’s number one killer, claiming almost 18 million lives annually.
South West News Service writer Mark Waghorn contributed to this report.