Diet rich in dairy may be linked to lower risk of heart disease: report

A diet rich in dairy fat may be linked to a lower risk of cardiovascular disease, researchers say.

In a new Swedish cohort study published in the journal Plos Medicine, international experts challenged the view that full-fat dairy options should be avoided due to saturated fat. 

Looking at the dairy fat intake in 4,150 Swedish adults – the majority of whom were female, with a median age of 60.5 years – over a period of 16.6 years, the group measured the blood concentration of certain levels of fatty acids. 

They recorded 578 incident cardiovascular disease events and 676 deaths, noting that cardiovascular disease risk was lower among those with higher intakes of dairy fat than compared with low intakes and that higher intakes were not associated with an increased risk of death.

Dairy intake in Sweden is among the highest in the world.

"Many studies have relied on people being able to remember and record the amounts and types of dairy foods they’ve eaten, which is especially difficult given that dairy is commonly used in a variety of foods. Instead, we measured blood levels of certain fatty acids, or fat ‘building blocks,’ that are found in dairy foods, which gives a more objective measure of dairy fat intake that doesn’t rely on memory or the quality of food databases," Dr. Matti Marklund, of the Australia-based George Institute for Global Health, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and Uppsala University, explained in a release

Then, in a meta-analysis, the researchers combined the result of the Swedish study with 17 similar studies in other countries, involving nearly 43,000 participants in the U.S., U.K. and Denmark.

The broader analysis also linked higher dairy fat consumption to a lower risk of cardiovascular disease, creating what the George Institute deemed the "most comprehensive evidence to date on the relationship between this more objective measure of dairy fat consumption, risk of cardiovascular disease and death."

"Increasing evidence suggests that the health impact of dairy foods may be more dependent on the type – such as cheese, yogurt, milk, and butter – rather than the fat content, which has raised doubts if avoidance of dairy fats overall is beneficial for cardiovascular health," lead author Dr. Kathy Trieu said in a statement.

However, the study notes that it has limitations, including the inability of biomarkers to determine different types of dairy foods and that most studies in meta-analysis assessed biomarkers at the baseline which "may increase the risk of misclassification of exposure levels."

The researchers called for further clinical and experimental studies to "elucidate the causality of these relationships and relevant biological mechanisms."

"It is important to remember that although dairy foods can be rich in saturated fat, they are also rich in many other nutrients and can be a part of a healthy diet. However, other fats like those found in seafood, nuts, and non-tropical vegetable oils can have greater health benefits than dairy fats," Trieu added.