By Ellie Hadjilucas Public Health & Sports Nutritionist
It's a common sight in grocery stores – shelves full of dairy products with varying levels of fat. From nonfat to whole milk, it can be difficult to determine which option is the healthiest.
According to health experts like the World Health Organization and American Dietary Guidelines , choosing fat-free or low-fat dairy products is the way to go. This is due to the fact that full-fat dairy products often contain high levels of saturated fats, which can lead to heart disease. However, this guidance dates back to 1980 when the first edition of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans was published.
Since then, most studies examining the health effects of dairy fat have failed to find any benefits of choosing low-fat versions over whole. In fact, research shows that the level of fat may not matter as much as the type of dairy product you choose.
Studies have found that consuming dairy products is associated with lower risks of certain conditions such as high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease and Type 2 diabetes. These benefits are often present regardless of whether people chose reduced-fat or full-fat yogurt, cheese or milk. Furthermore, research has found that those who consume full-fat dairy products are not more likely to gain weight.
One study published in 2018 followed 136,000 adults from 21 countries for nine years. They discovered that those who consumed two or more servings of dairy per day were 22 percent less likely to develop cardiovascular disease and 17 percent less likely to die than those who consumed no dairy at all. Surprisingly, those who consumed higher levels of saturated fat from dairy were not more likely to develop heart disease or die.
Another study pooled the results from 16 studies involving more than 63,000 adults. Across an average of nine years, those with higher levels of dairy fats in their blood were 29 percent less likely to develop Type 2 diabetes.
So, why could dairy fats be good for you? Dairy products contain specific types of saturated fats that have been linked to reduced risks of Type 2 diabetes and coronary heart disease. The unique structure of milk fat, known as the milk fat globule membrane, can help bind cholesterol in the digestive tract, potentially improving blood cholesterol levels.
It's also important to note that certain types of dairy foods may be better for you than others. Yoghurt and cheese, for instance, appear to be most associated with health benefits. This may be due to the fact that both are fermented foods that can supply good bacteria to your gut. They also contain other beneficial molecules made during fermentation, including vitamin K, which is linked to heart health. Harder cheeses like Cheddar and Parmesan also seem to result in a more gradual absorption of fats into the blood than softer cheeses and butter, which can help you feel fuller longer.
So, what's the best advice for the dairy aisle? It's best to aim for three servings of dairy per day as part of a balanced diet, as recommended by the current dietary guidelines. However, based on the most recent dairy fat data, it's probably fine if one or two of those servings are whole-fat milk, yoghurt or cheese. Be mindful of your caloric intake, as consuming more than the recommended amount can lead to an excess of calories. Additionally, incorporating at least one or two servings of yoghurt and cheese per day, preferably unsweetened versions, can provide added health benefits.