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Are low-fat dairy products really healthier for you? What about yoghurt and cheese?

Scan the dairy case of any grocery store, and you’ll find rows upon rows of products with varying levels of fat. Nonfat, low-fat, whole: What’s the healthiest option?

If you consult the US dietary guidelines or health authorities like the American Heart Association or the World Health Organization, the answer is clear: Choose a fat-free or low-fat version.

This recommendation stems from the idea that full-fat dairy products are high in saturated fats, so choosing lower-fat versions can reduce your risk of heart disease, said Dr Dariush Mozaffarian, a cardiologist and professor of medicine at Tufts University.

But that guidance goes back to 1980, when the first edition of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans was published, he said. And since then, most studies on the health effects of dairy fat have failed to find any benefits of prioritising low-fat versions over whole, Dr Mozaffarian said.

What seems to be more important than the level of fat, he added, is which dairy product you choose in the first place.

Related:

Almond, oat or soy? What’s the best milk alternative if you’re lactose intolerant

WHAT THE RESEARCH SUGGESTS

In studies that have surveyed people about their diets and then tracked their health over many years, researchers have found associations between dairy consumption and lower risks of certain conditions, such as high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease and Type 2 diabetes, Dr Mozaffarian said.

Such benefits, he added, were often present regardless of whether people chose reduced-fat or full-fat yoghurt, cheese or milk. And though full-fat dairy products are higher in calories, studies have found that those who consume them aren’t more likely to gain weight.

In one study published in 2018, for example, researchers followed 136,000 adults from 21 countries for nine years. They found that, during the study period, those who consumed two or more servings of dairy per day were 22 per cent less likely to develop cardiovascular disease and 17 per cent less likely to die than those who consumed no dairy at all. Notably, those who consumed higher levels of saturated fat from dairy were not more likely to develop heart disease or die.

In another large analysis, also published in 2018, researchers pooled the results from 16 studies involving more than 63,000 adults. They found that, across an average of nine years, those who had higher levels of dairy fats in their blood were 29 per cent less likely than those with lower levels to develop Type 2 diabetes.

This finding suggests that there may be a benefit to consuming dairy fat rather than avoiding it, Dr Mozaffarian said.

Of course, these studies can’t prove that dairy products themselves reduce certain risks of disease. That would require long-term clinical trials, which haven’t been conducted, Dr Mozaffarian said. But shorter-term trials have shown that consuming dairy products, including full-fat dairy, lowered the blood pressure of participants and did not increase weight or raise levels of LDL, or “bad cholesterol” – again suggesting that dairy fat is not harmful to heart health.

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