How Dairy Foods and Eating Patterns Support Metabolic Health

  • Article
  • May 11, 2017

About one in three adults has metabolic syndrome, a set of risk factors that increase the risk of stroke, heart disease and Type 2 diabetes. Here’s the good news: Research suggests dairy foods can help maintain health!

Previous research has investigated the beneficial links between dairy food consumption and Type 2 diabetes. A new cross-sectional study has taken a more holistic view of dairy foods and metabolic health components (i.e., high waist circumference, elevated blood pressure, low HDL cholesterol, high triglycerides and high fasting blood sugar). It looked at how consumption of milk, yogurt and cheese eating patterns are associated with health when they’re eaten separately, as well as how dairy foods are linked to health when they’re combined with other foods. Some of the results may surprise you.

First, researchers evaluated the impact of eating large, medium or small amounts of all dairy foods (milk, cheese, yogurt, butter and cream) on metabolic health. They found that eating a high amount of total dairy foods (the equivalent of 1.25 to 6.5 cups of milk/day) is associated with a lower body mass index (BMI), lower measures of body fat, lower blood pressure and improved insulin sensitivity.

As a next step, researchers looked at consumption of milk, cheese and yogurt separately. Drinking milk was associated with lower BMI and a trend toward higher muscle mass and lower body fat. Eating yogurt was associated with lower BMI and lower body fat. When it came to cheese consumption – whether high (1.5 ounces/day), medium (~0.5 ounce/day) or low (~0.25 ounce/day) – it was not associated with any metabolic risk factors. In fact, higher cheese consumption was positively associated with C-peptide, a marker for improved insulin sensitivity.

Three main patterns emerged around how study participants ate dairy foods as part of their meals and snacks: those who primarily drank whole milk, those who primarily enjoyed reduced-fat milk and yogurt and those who regularly ate cream and butter.

Although those in the reduced-fat milk and yogurt group had a lower consumption of total and saturated fat, they had higher total blood cholesterol and triglycerides than those in the whole fat dairy and cream and butter groups.

Although the researchers could not determine the cause of the unexpected dairy pattern findings, based on previous research one hypothesis was that a higher carbohydrate consumption (rice, grains, breads, cereals) in the reduced-fat milk and yogurt group might be responsible for higher triglyceride levels.  

These results raise questions that future research will need to answer about whether a low-fat, high simple carbohydrate eating pattern is less optimal for some people. There continues to be emerging scientific support for eating dairy foods (i.e., milk, cheese and yogurt), regardless of fat content, as part of a balanced, healthy eating plan.

For clients with diabetes, metabolic syndrome and obesity, lifestyle behavior changes that incorporate exercise and healthy eating patterns, including dairy foods, can play a key role in health.