• To limit saturated fat intake, the most recent edition of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans advises eating low-fat and non-fat versions of dairy foods.
  • A growing body of scientific research suggests dairy fats can have positive effects on heart health and the risk for other chronic diseases.
  • A new study of over 30,000 post-menopausal women found that a higher intake of dairy, regardless of fat content, was associated with lower blood triglycerides, LDL cholesterol, glucose, insulin, and two markers associated with inflammation.
  • Data from this large cross-sectional study suggest dairy-derived saturated fats are beneficial for heart health, chronic inflammation, and glucose metabolism.

Fashion trends from the 1990s may be making a comeback, but 1990’s dietary trends should definitely stay out of style. In that decade, fat was a four-letter word and non-fat and low-fat versions of foods were promoted over their full-fat counterparts, with the hope of improving heart health and reducing waist lines. We now know that trading fat for carbohydrates did not make Americans healthier (or thinner), but old habits die hard. Thirty years later, the influence of this fat-free mania on food choices and dietary recommendations is still evident. The most recent edition of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans [1] recommends non-fat and low-fat milk, yogurt, and cheese to limit saturated fat intake. But far from clogging arteries and increasing cholesterol, a growing body of scientific studies [27] suggests dairy-derived saturated fats could be beneficial for cardiovascular health.

The most recent vindication for dairy fats comes from data collected as part of the Women’s Health Initiative, one of the largest studies to address risk factors for cardiovascular disease. Detailed dietary data and blood samples were collected from over 35,000 post-menopausal women aged 50–79 from across the United States to test the hypothesis that dairy foods are associated with blood biomarkers commonly used to assess risk for cardiovascular disease and diabetes [8]. These included markers for lipid metabolism (total triglycerides, low-density lipoprotein, high-density lipoprotein, and total cholesterol), inflammation (C-reactive protein, IL-6, IL-10, and TNF-α), and glucose metabolism (glucose and insulin-related factors) [8].

Eating more dairy, including full-fat milk, cheese, and yogurt, was associated with a favorable biomarker profile. Going against the dogma that saturated fats are bad for heart health, higher intakes of full-fat dairy, cheese, and yogurt were associated with lower levels of blood triglycerides. And women with higher intakes of total dairy (all levels of fat), low-fat dairy, total cheese, and total yogurt also had lower levels of glucose, insulin, and two markers of inflammation (C-reactive protein and IL-6) [8].

Of all the dairy foods included in the analysis [8], yogurt seemed to have a unique influence on biomarker profiles. Increased yogurt consumption was associated with the largest percentage decrease in blood glucose, insulin, C-reactive protein, and IL-6 concentrations [8], supporting previous research on the protective effects of yogurt on inflammation and diabetes. Additionally, yogurt intake—of all fat levels—was associated with an increase in high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol, and a decrease in total triglycerides and low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol. (For those needing a quick recap on cholesterol, LDL are proteins that move fat into the walls of the arteries and can lead to plaque, whereas HDL remove fats from the artery walls. Generally speaking, higher LDL increases the risk for cardiovascular disease, whereas lower LDL and lower triglycerides decrease the risk).

These additional effects of yogurt compared with other dairy foods are, at least in part, because yogurt is fermented and contains probiotic bacteria, like Lactobacillus. As yogurt is digested, these beneficial bacteria increase the concentration of biologically-active proteins, which then, in turn, could potentially influence physiological processes like glucose metabolism, lipid metabolism, and inflammatory reactions [9].

Cheese, another fermented dairy food, was also associated with favorable profiles [8]. Looking at just yogurt and cheese, one could argue that fermented dairy might offer health benefits despite their saturated fat content. But the finding that full-fat dairy intake was associated with lower triglycerides, as well as lower insulin and glucose concentrations, suggests that dairy-derived saturated fats could actually be mediating these associations [8] rather than simply riding the coattails of probiotics or other nutrients in dairy.

Milk fats are biologically different from those found in bacon or biscuits. Fats in milk are packaged in membrane-bound bubbles called globules (and are referred to as the milk fat globule membrane, or MFGM). Dairy fatty acids within the MFGM are shorter in carbon chain length relative to fatty acids from other animal fats, which could positively affect cholesterol by raising HDL levels [10, 11]. And new research suggests the MFGM interacts directly with microorganisms in the gut [12], which could then influence human physiology in much the same way as probiotics from fermented foods.

It seems counterintuitive that saturated fats could be heart healthy. After all, we have been inundated with dietary advice to limit or avoid them for decades precisely because of their association with cardiovascular disease. But it might be time for dietary advice to join the 21st century and focus on the biological effects of foods rather than nutrients.

Contributed by
Dr. Lauren Milligan Newmark
Researcher, Science Writer

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1. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and U.S. Department of Agriculture. 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. 9th Edition. December 2020. Available at https://www.dietaryguidelines.gov/sites/default/files/2020-12/Dietary_Guidelines_for_Americans_2020-2025.pdf

2. Turner KM, Keogh JB, Clifton PM. 2015. Dairy consumption and insulin sensitivity: a systematic review of short-and long-term intervention studies. Nutrition, Metabolism and Cardiovascular Diseases 25: 3-8.

3. Cruijsen E, Jacobo Cejudo MG, Küpers LK, Busstra MC, Geleijnse JM. 2021. Dairy consumption and mortality after myocardial infarction: a prospective analysis in the Alpha Omega Cohort. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 114(1): 59-69.

4. Drouin-Chartier JP, Hernández-Alonso P, Guasch-Ferré M, Ruiz-Canela M, Li J, Wittenbecher C, Razquin C, Toledo E, Dennis C, Corella D, Estruch R. 2021. Dairy consumption, plasma metabolites, and risk of type 2 diabetes. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 114(1): 163-174.

5. Fontecha J, Calvo MV, Juarez M, Gil A, Martínez-Vizcaino V. 2019. Milk and dairy product consumption and cardiovascular diseases: an overview of systematic reviews and meta-analyses. Advances in Nutrition 1(10): S164-89.

6. Pei R, DiMarco DM, Putt KK, Martin DA, Gu Q, Chitchumroomchokchai C, White HM, Scarlett CO, Bruno RS, Bolling BW. 2017. Low-fat yogurt consumption reduces biomarkers of chronic inflammation and inhibits markers of endotoxin exposure in healthy premenopausal women: a randomized controlled trial. British Journal of Nutrition 118: 1043-1051.

7. Van Miejl LEC, Mensink RP. 2010. Effects of low-fat dairy consumption in markers of low-grade systemic inflammation and endothelial function in overweight and obese subjects: an intervention study. British Journal of Nutrition 104: 1523-1527.

8. Shi N, Olivo-Marston S, Jin Q, Aroke D, Joseph JJ, Clinton SK, Manson JE, Rexrode KM, Mossavar-Rahmani Y, Tinker LF, Shadyab AH. 2021. Associations of dairy intake with circulating biomarkers of inflammation, insulin response, and dyslipidemia among postmenopausal women. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics 121: 1984–2002.

9. Matar C., Goulet J, Bernier R., Brochu E. 2000. Bioactive peptides from fermented foods: their role in the immune system. In: Fuller R., Perdigon G. (eds) Probiotics 3. Springer, Dordrecht. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-94-017-2768-6_8

10. Abd El‐Salam MH, El‐Shibiny S. 2020. Milk fat globule membrane: An overview with particular emphasis on its nutritional and health benefits. International Journal of Dairy Technology 73: 639-55.

11. Kosmerl E, Rocha-Mendoza D, Ortega-Anaya J, Jiménez-Flores R, García-Cano I. 2021. Improving human health with milk fat globule membrane, lactic acid bacteria, and bifidobacteria. Microorganisms 9(2): 341.

12. de Oliveira Otto MC, Mozaffarian D, Kromhout D, Bertoni AG, Sibley CT, Jacobs DR Jr, Nettleton JA (2012). Dietary intake of saturated fat by food source and incident cardiovascular disease: the Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis. Amerian Journal of Clinical Nutrition 96(2):397-404.