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.