Cardiologists have been admonishing Americans to avoid saturated fat in the diet. Whole fat dairy products have been especially vilified. That is why skim milk, margarine and low-fat yogurt have become so popular over the last few decades. Admit it, if you put cream in your coffee, don’t you feel just a wee bit guilty? And if you buy full-fat ice cream doesn’t it seem as if you are committing a sin? Surprisingly, though, The data to support restricting whole fat dairy products has been conflicting and confusing. Now a new study suggests that telling people to avoid dairy products might have been mistaken (Lancet, Sept. 11, 2018).

Whole Fat Dairy Intake and Heart Disease

It has long been assumed that saturated fat was the culprit underlying cardiovascular disease (CVD), heart attacks and premature death. Sat-fat was thought to raise LDL cholesterol which would in turn clog coronary arteries. But this lipid theory of heart disease doesn’t work as well as the advocates would like to believe. More about that in a moment.

PURE to the Rescue:

A large multinational epidemiological study involving more than 136,000 people challenges the old assumptions about whole fat dairy products. This research is called the PURE (Prospective Urban Rural Epidemiology) study. Investigators recruited volunteers from 21 countries in five continents.

Over 9 years there were more than 10,000 heart attacks or deaths in this population. People who reported consuming at least two servings of dairy products daily were less likely to suffer a cardiovascular event or die during the study. Some people ate only full-fat dairy products. If they had three servings a day, their chance of dying during the study was lower than people who had only half a serving daily.

The researchers noted that a higher intake of total dairy (more than two servings daily) compared to no dairy intake was associated with:

  • Less total mortality
  • Less non-cardiovascular mortality
  • Less cardiovascular mortality
  • Less major cardiovascular disease
  • Fewer strokes

The researchers offered the following implication of the PURE study:

“Dairy consumption was associated with lower risk of mortality and major cardiovascular disease events in a diverse multinational cohort.”

The authors of this study pointed out that:

“…a meta-analysis of cohort studies suggested a lower risk of hypertension with increasing milk consumption, with a neutral effect on cardiovascular disease.” (refs: Hypertension, Nov. 2012; Circulation, Jan. 12, 2016).

They acknowledge that most dietary guidelines restrict whole fat dairy products on the grounds that this approach should reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease. They hasten to add:

“However, dairy products and dairy fat also contain potentially beneficial compounds— including specific aminoacids, medium-chain and odd-chain saturated fats, milk fat globule phospholipids, unsaturated and branched-chain fats, natural trans fats, vitamin K1 and K2, and calcium—and can contain probiotics, many of which might also affect health outcomes.”

The Conclusions in Their Own Words:

“In this large, multinational, prospective cohort study involving participants from 21 countries in 5 continents, we found inverse associations between total dairy consumption and mortality or major cardiovascular disease events. The risk of stroke was markedly lower with higher consumption of dairy.”

“Our study (unpublished data) and others have shown a lower blood pressure with higher consumption of dairy and this effect might explain the lower risks of strokes that we have observed. Furthermore, there was no impact on LDL cholesterol but a lower triglyceride blood concentration with higher dairy consumption, and this finding might explain the non-significant and lower risk of myocardial infarction observed in this study.”

Whole Fat Dairy Is Not the Enemy:

Did you catch the statement that consumption of dairy foods did not impact LDL cholesterol? That should have come as a major shock. For decades you have been told that the saturated fat in whole fat dairy products would raise your LDL cholesterol and lead to terrible cardiovascular consequences. In the PURE study, however, dairy consumption didn’t  impact LDL cholesterol and actually led to lower triglyceride levels.

This is not the first time that the demonization of saturated fat has fallen flat. Here is an article you may find compelling that provides a broad perspective on saturated fat and heart disease. It was based on an article in the British Journal of Sports Medicine (April 25, 2017) titled “Saturated Fat Does Not Clog the Arteries.” Here is a link:

What do you think about whole-fat dairy products? Share your thoughts in the comment section below.

The Lancet, Sep. 11, 2018

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