For years, people who love dairy products (e.g. cheese) have been warned about the heart health risks of eating too much saturated fat, which can potentially include heart disease and stroke. But a new study claims that dairy fat can actually be good for your heart.
The study, which was recently published in PLOS Medicine, analyzed blood samples of 4,150 people with a median age of about 60 in Sweden, a country that collectively consumes a lot of dairy. The researchers followed up with the study participants nearly 17 years later to see how many of them had experienced heart attacks, strokes, hypertension, and other heart health issues.
The researchers of the study adjusted the findings for factors such as age, activity levels, and diet, and found that people who had higher levels of dairy fat in their blood had a lower risk of heart disease compared to those who had lower levels of dairy fat.
After getting those (surprising) findings, the researchers then analyzed 18 similar studies of nearly 43,000 people in the U.S., U.K., and Denmark of similar ages, and found comparable results. Worth noting: The biomarkers that the researchers used in the study, which were certain fatty acids found in dairy foods, couldn't tell the exact type of dairy the study participants ate. (Read more: Is Dairy Healthy? The Pros and Cons of Consuming Dairy)
The researchers were careful not to draw too many conclusions about their results, writing, "the findings from our study using fatty acid biomarkers suggest that higher intake of dairy fat were associated with lower cardiovascular disease risk in diverse populations including Sweden (a country with high dairy intake), though more trials are needed to understand if and how dairy foods protect cardiovascular health."
The research from this study is one of the newest to suggest that maybe dairy isn't so bad for your heart health after all. In fact, one study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 2011 found that people who ate 13 percent of their daily calories from cheese over six weeks did not have an increase in their LDL (aka low-density lipoprotein, sometimes referred to as "bad") cholesterol levels. When you have high levels of LDL, it can raise your risk for heart disease and stroke, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Research has found, though, that butter may not be so great for your heart health. That same American Journal of Clinical Nutrition study found that people who ate 13 percent of their daily calories from butter over a six-week period did have an increase in LDL cholesterol. A meta-analysis (an analysis of previously collected data) published in BMC Medicine in April 2021 also linked butter consumption to a higher mortality rate.
The American Heart Association currently recommends that people eat two to three servings of fat-free or low-fat dairy products per day, with fat-free milk, fat-free or low-fat yogurt, and low-fat cheeses being ideal choices. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans also recommends choosing lower-fat dairy options and minimizing higher-fat dairies such as full-fat cheese, butter, and cream cheese in order to limit how much saturated fat you eat.
Okay, so… is dairy actually good for your heart? It's really hard to say, says Jessica Cording, M.S., R.D., dietitian and author of The Little Book of Game-Changers (Buy It, $17, amazon.com). "Dairy has been kind of a puzzle when it comes to heart health," she says. Diet's impact on a person's heart is "really individual," she says, but she notes that all dairy isn't created equal. "I wouldn't tell someone to throw out all your olive oil and only use butter," says Cording.
Keri Gans, R.D., author of The Small Change Diet (Buy It, $3, amazon.com), says she's "not surprised" by the study's findings, though. "The well-researched DASH diet — Dietary Approach to Stop Hypertension — has always included two to three servings of non-fat or low-fat dairy per day as part of its recommended eating plan," she says. Dairy foods also tend to contain nutrients such as vitamins D and K, along with calcium, which are linked to good heart health, Gans points out.
The impact of dairy on heart health could also be indirect, says Cording. "Full-fat dairy slows down the digestive process and can keep you satisfied for a longer period of time," she says. "That can make you less likely to snack on whatever is available vs. making intentional, healthy food choices." And, if people regularly reach for quick snacks like processed foods, it can have a negative impact on their heart health, she notes. (Read more: Following a Dairy-Free Diet May Increase Your Risk of Osteoporosis)
Full fat dairy can also help stabilize your blood sugar, giving you more consistent energy for exercise… which is also good for your heart health, says Cording. "Over time, I think we'll continue to learn whether there are other factors at work," she adds.
If you like having dairy products in your life and you're sticking within the recommended daily amounts, Cording says you should be just fine to keep doing the same. As for whether you should choose low-fat or full-fat dairy products, Gans recommends looking at your overall intake of saturated fat a day. If it's less than the Dietary Guidelines' recommended limit of 10 percent of your total daily calories (2,000 calories per day is typically recommended for women), she says you should be just fine.