The Heart Foundation now recommends full-fat milk, cheese and yoghurt or reduced-fat options as part of its updated dietary advice for 2020. This moves away from earlier advice that recommended only reduced-fat dairy when it comes to heart health.
So, what’s behind the latest change? And what does this mean for people with high blood pressure or existing heart disease?
What’s new if you’re healthy?
For healthy Australians, the Heart Foundation now recommends unflavoured full-fat milk, yoghurt and cheese, as well as the reduced-fat options previously recommended.
The change comes after reviewing research from systematic reviews and meta-analyses published since 2009. These pooled results come from mostly long-term observational studies.
This is where researchers assess people’s dietary patterns and follow them for many years to look at health differences between people who eat and drink a lot of dairy products and those who consume small amounts.
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.
So when results of the recent studies were grouped together, the Heart Foundation reported no consistent relationship between full-fat or reduced-fat milk, cheese and yoghurt consumption and the risk of heart disease. The risk was neither increased nor decreased.
Put simply, for people who do not have any risk factors for heart disease, including those in the healthy weight range, 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, as part of a varied healthy eating pattern.
Before you think about having a dairy binge, the review noted the studies on full-fat milk, yoghurt and cheese can’t be extrapolated to butter, cream, ice cream and dairy-based desserts.
This is why the Heart Foundation still doesn’t recommend those other full-fat dairy options, even if you’re currently healthy.
What about people with heart disease?
However, for people with heart disease, high blood pressure or some other conditions, the advice is different.
The review found dairy fat in butter seems to raise LDL or “bad” cholesterol levels more than full-fat milk, cheese and yogurt. And for people with raised LDL cholesterol there is a bigger increase in LDL after consuming fat from dairy products.
So, for people with high blood cholesterol or existing heart disease, the Heart Foundation recommends unflavoured reduced-fat milk, yoghurt and cheese to help lower their total risk of heart disease, which is consistent with previous recommendations.
Unflavoured, reduced-fat versions are lower in total kilojoules than the full-fat options. So, this will also help lower total energy intakes, a key strategy for managing weight.