Ask Dr. Dairy: Can Whole Milk-Based Dairy Foods Be Part of Healthy Eating Patterns?
I have been sharing science on the role of dairy foods ― specifically milk, cheese and yogurt ― in relation to chronic diseases and health benefits my entire career. It’s not often in the career of a scientist that you see landmark shifts take place in an area of study. Yet that is exactly where I stand now.
After decades of research examining how fat impacts health, the results are painting a clearer picture for all fats, but especially the unique fatty-acid composition found in whole milk and the foods made from it like cheese and yogurt.
While nutrition science has historically focused on which individual nutrients or foods to limit or eat more of related to disease risk, there has been a shift towards food-based approaches to healthy eating and well-being in recent years. As the research continues to grow, a preponderance of evidence exists linking milk, cheese and yogurt, regardless of fat level, with lower risk of chronic diseases like type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Giving people the option to choose whole milk-based dairy foods, within calorie-balanced, healthy eating patterns, has become increasingly more mainstream.
An example of the latest research is a study by Chiu et. al that shows full-fat dairy had the same results on lowering blood pressure as low-fat dairy in the in the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet, while also reducing triglycerides and very low-density lipoproteins (VLDL cholesterol) without significant increases in low-density lipoproteins (LDL cholesterol).
Meanwhile, the new position statements from the Australian Heart Foundation encourage milk, yogurt and cheese in its recommended eating pattern. Key points from the position statement on dairy and heart healthy eating and the supporting evidence report include:
- On balance, the current evidence suggests a neutral relationship between dairy foods and cardiovascular risk, and a possible protective relationship between dairy foods and hypertension, stroke and type 2 diabetes risk. Based on this evidence, milk, yogurt and cheese can be included in a healthy eating pattern.
- For people with elevated cholesterol and those with existing coronary heart disease, reduced-fat dairy products are recommended.
This new position statement, as well as those from other health organizations, emphasize that the quality of the foods that make up healthy eating patterns is what is most important. The Canadian Heart and Stroke Foundation also pointed to the quality over quantity of fat consumed. Similarly, the Joslin Diabetes Center acknowledges the importance of the quality of dietary fats consumed in its most recent clinical guidelines for patients with type 2 diabetes and allows for more saturated fats as compared to previous guidelines. Whole milk dairy products are allowed (not restricted) within overall calorie and saturated fat limits in these guidelines.
These evolving recommendations are indicative of the strength and the growing volume of emerging research on dairy foods (at all fat levels) related to health. This growing body of research may be reviewed, discussed and considered for future Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA) as well. The DGA currently recommends low-fat or fat-free dairy foods but does allow for some additional calories to come from sources of fat, which is where one could choose to include a fuller-fat serving of dairy.
For now, I’ll leave you with the answer to the question: Yes, the emerging research indicates that whole milk, regular cheese and whole milk yogurt can be part of calorie-balanced, healthy eating patterns that are linked to neutral or positive health outcomes.