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Research Update: Full-fat or Reduced-fat Dairy?

September 19, 2019

 

Just last month the Heart Foundation released updated dietary advice on full-fat and reduced-fat dairy.

  • For healthy Australians, the Heart Foundation now recommends full-fat milk, yoghurt and cheese as well as reduced-fat options.

  • This moves away from earlier advice that recommended only reduced-fat dairy for heart health.

So what’s behind this latest change? And what does this mean for people with high cholesterol, heart disease, or who are battling with weight?

 

For those Australians who are in the healthy weight range with no risk factors for heart disease, the Heart Foundation now recommends full-fat milk, yoghurt and cheese as well as the reduced-fat options previously recommended.

 

This change comes after reviewing research from long-term observational studies published between 2009 and 2018, where researches have assessed people’s dietary patterns and followed them for many years to look at health differences. Researchers run these studies because it is not practical or ethical to put people on experimental diets for 20 or more years and wait to see who gets heart disease.

 

When these results were pooled together, the evidence suggested a neutral relationship between dairy foods and heart disease risk, when consumed as part of a varied and healthy eating pattern. Such a pattern is rich in vegetables, fruit, legumes, wholegrains and plant oils, and low in discretionary foods and drinks (i.e. soft drink, alcohol and heavily processed foods).

 

Put simply, choosing reduced-fat or low-fat options for milk, yoghurt and cheese does not confer extra health benefits or risks compared to choosing the higher-fat options, for people of a healthy weight with no history of heart disease.

 

The Heart Foundation have been careful to clarify that these results can’t be extrapolated to butter, cream, ice cream and dairy-based desserts. These are still not recommended, even if you’re currently healthy.

 

For people with high cholesterol or existing heart disease, the advice is different. The review found that for people with raised LDL or “bad” cholesterol, there was a further increase in LDL after consuming fat from dairy products.
 
It is well established that the risk of heart disease can be reduced by replacing saturated fat (as is found in dairy products) with unsaturated fats (e.g. from fish, olives, seeds, nuts and oils made from them).
 
For this reason, reducing dairy fat intake is one of the recommended strategies to limit saturated fat intake for those who would benefit from LDL-lowering dietary interventions. So for those with elevated cholesterol, the recommendation remains unchanged: reduced-fat milk, yoghurt and cheese are best.

 

Reduced-fat versions also happen to be lower in calories than their full-fat counterparts. This is because fat contains 9 calories per gram – so for every gram of fat skimmed off the top, you save 9 calories.

 

Take a medium takeaway coffee, for example. Have this made on full-fat milk and it will cost you around 175 calories and 9g of fat. Swap for a reduced-fat milk, however, and it will cost you only 90-120 calories and 0-3g fat, depending on whether you use a skim or a low-fat variety.

 

For those who include even one serve of dairy each day, swapping from full-fat to reduced-fat adds up to savings of ~350-600 calories a week or ~18,000-31,000 calories across a year!
 

  • Full-fat milk, cheese and yoghurt can be included as part of a healthy diet that also includes vegetables, fruits, legumes, wholegrains and plant oils.

  • For people with elevated cholesterol or blood pressure, reduced-fat options can help reduce heart disease risk.

  • Swapping from full-fat to reduced-fat dairy is an effective way to reduce calorie intake to promote weight loss.

References:

  • Collins, C. (2019). Why full-fat milk is now OK if you're healthy, but reduced-fat dairy is still best if you're not. Retrieved from www.theconversation.com.

  • National Heart Foundation of Australia. (2019). Dietary Position Statement: Dairy & Heart Healthy Eating. Retrieved from www.heartfoundation.org.au.

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