When you go to the grocery store, do you shun the full-fat dairy products in favor of skim milk, fat-free yogurt, and reduced-fat cheese? Many of us automatically default to these options, having heard for years that full-fat dairy is an artery-clogging evil to be strenuously avoided. But new research indicates that may not be the case at all — and that in fact, consuming more full-fat dairy products could actually lower the risk of heart disease.
This is great news for me, a cottage-cheese lover if not a milk-drinker, but can it really be true that choosing the full-fat version of this creamy treat (which is undeniably tastier) is better for my health?
Is full-fat dairy bad for you?
A new study, published this month in PLOS Medicine, followed more than 4,000 Swedish 60-year-olds and collected data about their heart health during a period of a little over 16 years. When researchers looked at participants fatty acid biomarkers, they found that a higher intake of dairy fat was associated with lower risk of cardiovascular disease, such as heart attacks and strokes.
Although the study’s authors cautioned that “more trials are needed to understand if and how dairy foods protect cardiovascular health,” this research is not the first to suggest that favoring low-fat and fat-free dairy products might not be the best idea. A 2012 study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition linked a lower instance of cardiovascular disease with a diet higher in saturated fat, and a 2016 study published in Circulation found that eating full-fat dairy was associated with a lowered risk of diabetes.
While the low-fat versus full-fat diary debate is far from resolved, it seems that the more research is conducted, the more evidence there is that full-fat dairy isn’t the villain many of us always thought it was.
How much dairy do we need?
The US government’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA) recommends that women ages 19 and older should consume at least three cups of dairy. And by that, they mean products rich in calcium, potassium, vitamin D, and protein — not things like cream cheese, sour cream, and butter, which are basically all fat and few nutrients.
The DGA also says that less than 10 percent of our daily calories should come from saturated fat. And, since dairy products can be high in this type of fat, the recommendation has always been to choose fat-free or low-fat dairy products. For perspective, a glass of whole milk has 4.6 grams of saturated fat — about 20 percent of the recommended daily allowance for most adults. A glass of skim milk, on the other hand, has only 0.1 grams of saturated fat.
Since it’s estimated that about 90 percent of Americans don’t get enough dairy in our diets, and we all want to keep our hearts healthy, knowing what types of products we should be consuming is important.
Which full-fat dairy products are best for our health?
The authors of this latest study are in agreement with previous research that says the benefits of dairy fat are largely dependent on the type of dairy you consume. Just like eating red meat isn’t always bad for your heart, there’s a right way and a wrong way to increase your intake of full-fat dairy.
Since it seems that enjoying a bagel with cream cheese for breakfast and a baked potato with a healthy dollop of sour cream for dinner isn’t going to cut it, and sugar-laden ice cream is never going to be great for your health, what should we be eating to get enough dairy? (Slathering butter on everything doesn’t count at all, unfortunately.)
A great way to increase your healthy dairy intake is to have a bowl of cottage cheese fortified with live and active cultures that are beneficial for your gut health. (My fave is Good Culture, which comes in low-fat, whole milk, and double cream versions, so you can choose your preferred fat content.) Add some chopped fresh peaches or blueberries, and you might be surprised how good it it! Yogurt is also an excellent choice, as is string cheese or a glass of cold soy milk. May we suggest it with a fresh-baked peanut butter cookie?