Time to bring out the whole milk

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Like pretty much every other form of fat, dairy fat’s been vilified and treated as something of a nutritional public enemy. A quick scan of your supermarket’s yogurt offerings reveals a preponderance of leaner dairy options, and downward trends in milk consumption further suggest the some Americans believe in avoiding dairy altogether. But as it turns out, a new study is part of a growing body of evidence suggesting that saturated dairy fat isn’t as harmful as conventional wisdom suggests.

New research conducted by the University of Texas’ School of Public Health and published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition shows that the consumption of saturated dairy fat had essentially no bearing on cardiovascular health. Conducted in conjunction with Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian from Tufts University’s Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, the study followed 2,907 American adults aged 65 or over without cardiovascular issues for a period of 22 years, tracking their saturated fat consumption over time.

Rather than relying on self-reporting, the study took blood samples from participants and measured their fatty acid levels, which served as an indicator of risk for cardiovascular disease and strokes. More specifically, researchers were able to identify dairy-specific fatty acids, tracking the approximate relationship between dairy fat consumption and health outcomes. When all was said and done, the study’s authors declared that dairy-based fatty acids had essentially no bearing on overall cardiovascular health.

“Our findings not only support, but also significantly strengthen, the growing body of evidence which suggests that dairy fat, contrary to popular belief, does not increase risk of heart disease or overall mortality in older adults,” said Marcia Otto, lead author and assistant professor of epidemiology, human genetics and environmental sciences at UT’s School of Public Health in a statement.

As Otto implies, this isn’t the first time that food scientists have attempted to shift public perception of fat through research. A 2016 study of 3,333 adults which concluded that higher levels of fatty acids correlated with a lower likelihood of developing diabetes. Another study of 18,438 women showed that women who ate full-fat products (and especially fatty dairy) were less likely to gain weight while undergoing menopause.

Given that many Americans were raised to regard fat as universally evil, Otto hopes that a study debunking dairy fat’s link to heart disease— the leading cause of death in the US— starts to shift our perception. “Consumers have been exposed to so much different and conflicting information about diet, particularly in relation to fats," said Otto. "It’s therefore important to have robust studies, so people can make more balanced and informed choices based on scientific fact rather than hearsay."

Given that the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans still advocates the consumption of low-fat and fat-free dairy, it could still be some time before the facts about dairy fat reach the masses. But for now, treat yourself to some cheese, content in the knowledge that you just (might have) unlocked the secret to a longer, healthier life.