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Are Full-Fat Milk and Cheese Really Risky?

Studies do not show that people who consume full-fat milk and cheese have higher cholesterol or die younger from heart disease.
Are Full-Fat Milk and Cheese Really Risky?
Cheeses dairy food

Health professionals and nutritionists have been telling people for decades that full-fat milk and cheese (as well as other dairy products such as yogurt) are bad for the heart. They were sure that the saturated fat in such products would clog coronary arteries. Many people listened to their warnings and started drinking skim milk and eating low-fat yogurt and cheese instead. How well does the evidence support that shift?

Do Full-Fat Milk and Cheese Raise Cholesterol?

Scientists thought that full-fat dairy products, which are high in cholesterol, would raise cholesterol levels in the blood. This, they assumed, would lead to atherosclerosis and heart disease. 

Does sticking with low-fat dairy lower cholesterol levels? A randomized controlled trial recruited 72 individuals with metabolic syndrome (American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Sept. 2021). This condition is defined as elevated blood sugar, high blood pressure, a big belly and abnormal levels of cholesterol and triglycerides. Metabolic syndrome puts people at risk for cardiovascular disease.

Researchers assigned the volunteers to a diet containing less than three weekly servings of milk or three servings daily of either full-fat or low-fat milk, yogurt and cheese. After three months, there were no differences in LDL, HDL or total cholesterol. Triglycerides and free fatty acids were also unaffected.

The scientists conclude,

“Therefore, dairy fat, when consumed as part of complex whole foods, does not adversely impact these classic CVD risk factors.”

How Do Full-Fat Milk and Cheese Affect the Risk of Heart Disease?

A meta-analysis published in the European Journal of Epidemiology suggested even earlier that the advice to avoid full-fat milk and cheese may have been misguided. The authors analyzed data from 29 studies over more than two decades (European Journal of Epidemiology, Apr., 2017). Nearly one million subjects participated in these trials.

No Link Between Full-Fat Dairy Products and Death from Heart Disease:

The investigators could find no link between the consumption of milk or dairy products and heart disease or death. It didn’t matter whether people consumed high- or low-fat dairy products. There was no increase in mortality.

The investigators even detected a slight trend towards a lower risk of heart attacks or strokes among people who consumed fermented dairy products such as kefir, yogurt, sour cream and cheese. At this point, we should reconsider admonitions to avoid dairy products high in saturated fat.

This is not the first study to show that people who eat butter, cheese or other full-fat dairy products live just as long as those who go the low-fat route. Research published in 2016 under the title “Is Butter Back?” showed no link between butter consumption and heart disease. We doubt that the current study on the effect of full-fat milk and cheese on blood lipids will be the last one, either.

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About the Author
Terry Graedon, PhD, is a medical anthropologist and co-host of The People’s Pharmacy radio show, co-author of The People’s Pharmacy syndicated newspaper columns and numerous books, and co-founder of The People’s Pharmacy website. Terry taught in the Duke University School of Nursing and was an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology. She is a Fellow of the Society of Applied Anthropology. Terry is one of the country's leading authorities on the science behind folk remedies. .
  • Schmidt KA et al, "Impact of low-fat and full-fat dairy foods on fasting lipid profile and blood pressure: exploratory endpoints of a randomized controlled trial." American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Sept. 2021. https://doi.org/10.1093/ajcn/nqab131
  • Guo J et al, "Milk and dairy consumption and risk of cardiovascular diseases and all-cause mortality: dose–response meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies." European Journal of Epidemiology, Apr., 2017. DOI https://doi.org/10.1007/s10654-017-0243-1
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