Winter 2019

Rethinking Full-Fat Dairy

Fats in milk and cheese aren't connected to a higher risk of death.

By Julie Flaherty

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Photo: Shutterstock

Fats in milk, cheese, and other dairy products are not linked to a higher risk of death in older adults, according to a new study cowritten by senior author Dariush Mozaffarian, dean of Tufts’ Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy.

The study, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, ran for twenty-two years in all, and followed nearly three thousand adults age sixty-five years and older. Rather than relying on what participants said they ate, the researchers measured their blood levels of three fatty acids, taking measurements three times over thirteen years. Higher fatty acid levels suggested a higher consumption of whole-fat dairy products.

None of the three fatty acids were significantly linked to total mortality or heart disease. In fact, people with the highest amount of one of the dairy fats, heptadecanoic acid, had a 42 percent lower risk of dying from stroke, compared to people with the least heptadecanoic acid. (Heptadecanoic acid was associated with a higher risk of dying from illnesses other than cardiovascular disease, something the authors said warrants further investigation.)

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that people choose nonfat and low-fat versions of dairy foods because of concerns about saturated fat and calories. Emerging research suggests the need to revisit guidance on whole-fat dairy products, which are rich sources of nutrients such as calcium and potassium, said first author Marcia Otto, an assistant professor at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston.

Mozaffarian points out that dairy products, like all foods, are more than the sum of their parts—as research on the body’s reaction to fermented foods, such as cheese, and probiotic-rich foods, such as yogurt, is revealing. “There is growing evidence on the complexity of foods,” he said, “so health effects cannot be judged based on simplistic metrics such as total fat.”

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