Revisiting Dairy and Saturated Fats: Unveiling New Frontiers in Nutritional Science

The realm of nutritional science is an ever-evolving space, full of transformative research and insights. Steadfast beliefs about the effects of saturated fats on cardiovascular health – particularly fats found in dairy foods – have encountered a new understanding that challenges what people previously perceived as negative.

For years, general diet advice has been to eat low-fat foods. But nutrition is an evolving science, and when it comes to whole fat, the science shows that not all fat is created equal – or affects your body the same way. So, if you love a full-fat cheese or a flat white latte, know that it can be a part of a healthy eating pattern.

The Foundation of MyPlate and Dairy’s Role

Healthy eating patterns, like MyPlate, as part of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA) have stood as guiding lights for both health professionals and the individuals we serve, incorporating five food groups – dairy, fruits, vegetables, grains and protein – that are essential for good health. In the past, the DGA have encouraged choosing fat-free and low-fat dairy products. However, that may look different in the future, because the science is starting to show that dairy fat doesn’t behave like other fats and may even do your body good.

Emerging Evidence and the Myth of Saturated Fats

In the 1950s, people believed there was a direct link between eating saturated fats and developing heart disease. To this day, dietary recommendations, including those in the DGA, recommend limiting saturated fat intake due to its perceived associations with heart disease and stroke risk.

But the tide may turn with the next edition of the DGA. The previous evidence and available science was limited. New research and recent reexaminations by esteemed nutrition experts, showcased in over twenty review papers, now deliver a resounding verdict: saturated fats exhibit no discernible impact on cardiovascular disease, cardiovascular mortality or total mortality.

Whole-fat dairy is one of the foods that has been excluded from healthy eating pattern recommendations because of its saturated fat. But recent research covering dairy, specifically, shows that the association isn’t so simple: saturated fat in dairy may not cause heart disease – it may even have some protective benefits. Eating milk, cheese and yogurt, regardless of fat level, may also go beyond just protecting your heart, offering a lower risk of developing Type 2 diabetes.

The Complexity of Dairy’s Nutrient Package

The richness of dairy's nutrient composition goes beyond the fat content; it offers a comprehensive package of essential vitamins, minerals and proteins crucial for maintaining overall health and well-being.

We often tout milk’s 13 essential nutrients, but it also offers a variety of fatty acids. Milk fat is made up of over 400 different fats, and the positive variety of ways they affect your body adds to the complexity of our favorite dairy foods. Plus, other nutrients found in dairy – such as vitamins, minerals and bioactive compounds – can help you meet your body’s various nutrient needs and actually reduce your risk for heart disease.

Embracing New Evidence

Relaxing restrictive recommendations means more choice and could be motivation for people to meet their daily suggested servings. Ultimately, the quality of the foods making up healthy eating patterns is what matters most. Thus, nutrient-rich whole milk, regular cheese and whole-milk yogurt can be a delicious part of calorie-balanced healthy eating patterns.

Learn more about the nutritional benefits of dairy foods and health.

By Rexanna deGruy, Ph.D.

Rexanna deGruy grew up raising chickens and Brahman cattle commercially, with a farming father and an agricultural-science teaching mother. Fascinated by the chance to communicate with people from all walks of life, she pursued a Bachelor and Master of Science in agricultural communications from Texas A&M and Texas Tech University, respectively, then earned her Doctor of Philosophy in AEEE (agricultural and extension education and evaluation) from Louisiana State University. She gained experience in research and marketing working for her alma maters and for Wiggins Farms, earning several publishing credits on topics including food labeling and activist marketing. As she looked for her next opportunity, Rexanna knew she wanted to work for an organization with great purpose – and she found that purpose at Dairy MAX in September 2022. She and her husband, Dylan, live in Baton Rouge.

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