Dairy and heart disease risk
Long-standing dietary recommendations are to limit foods high in saturated fat. These recommendations stem from the belief that saturated fats raise blood cholesterol levels, particularly low-density lipoprotein (LDL) or “bad” cholesterol. High LDL and total cholesterol levels are markers of cardiovascular (CVD) disease risk.
Meat and dairy products are the primary contributors of saturated fats in most diets. Even fish and plant oils, such as olive oil, contain saturated fat. There is growing evidence that not all saturated fats have the same effects in the body.
A recent study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition reported on high intake of regular cheese and reduced-fat cheese and their null effect on LDL cholesterol levels as well as metabolic syndrome. Metabolic syndrome is a cluster of risk factors including elevated blood fats, insulin resistance, elevated blood pressure, and abdominal obesity that increase the risk of diabetes, stroke and cardiovascular disease.
It is not completely understood why the saturated in fat in dairy seems to have no negative effects on the aforementioned risk factors. Beyond the type of saturated fat, it could be the other nutrients in dairy have preventative effects. We commonly think of these foods providing calcium and protein, but they also have vitamins A, D and B-12, riboflavin, and minerals such as phosphorus, magnesium, potassium and zinc.
Many of these nutrients have antioxidant and maintenance functions, such as cell growth and repair, proper muscle function, and play a role in blood pressure control. Dairy products also have probiotics — beneficial bacteria that promote intestinal health and may play a role in weight control.
Of course, dairy is high in calories and this can’t be ignored. The amount of cheese study participants ate was 64-112 grams a day, which is equivalent to 3-5 slices. That could be 180-400 calories, depending on the type of cheese and actual amount consumed.
Of note, study participants were instructed to maintain their weight, which means that their diets were to remain fairly constant in calories. This is an important factor, because weight gain and obesity are strong independent risk factors for many diseases.