The common belief that cheese and dairy are bad for your heart is simply wrong, a new review of 29 previous studies found.
The new findings, published by an international team of experts, contradicts a view shared by most people — that dairy isn’t really good for you, because of their fat content. The study strongly dismisses that fear as “a misconception [and] mistaken belief”.
“This meta-analysis showed there were no associations between total dairy, high- and low-fat dairy, milk and the health outcomes including all-cause mortality, coronary heart disease or cardiovascular disease,” says the report, published in the European Journal of Epidemiology.
Ian Givens, a professor of food chain nutrition at Reading University, worked with colleagues from Reading, Copenhagen University in Denmark and Wageningen University in the Netherlands, analyzing studies which featured 938,465 participants from around the world, finding no association between cardiovascular diseases and any type of dairy. This means that many of our dietary options are skewed in an unnecessary way. For starters, 85% of all milk sold in the UK is now semi-skimmed or skimmed, with similar trends becoming increasingly noticeable in many parts of the world.
People are giving up on dairy fats, and are therefore taking nutrients from other sources — more often than not, these alternatives are not as healthy as cheese, milk, or yogurt, researchers say. Givens said consumers shunning full-fat versions of cheese, milk or yogurt are making a mistake, as young people (especially young women) often have insufficient calcium intake in their diet, which can lead to osteoporosis later in life. For pregnant women especially, insufficient calcium can lead to their child having neuro-developmental difficulties, which could affect their cognitive abilities and stunt their growth.
“There’s been a lot of publicity over the last five to 10 years about how saturated fats increase the risk of cardiovascular disease and a belief has grown up that they must increase the risk, but they don’t.” Speaking to The Guardian, he added: “Our meta-analysis included an unusually large number of participants. We are confident that our results are robust and accurate.”
Givens hopes that the new study will eliminate the perception that dairy is bad for you. In an email to Vice, he explains:
“I think dairy has been linked to heart disease in the past mainly because dairy foods are major dietary contributors of saturated fats. Our analysis agreed with most earlier [studies] that there was no association (it’s important to remember these studies are of association, not cause and effect) between consumption of milk, cheese, and yogurt (we did not look at butter) and increased risk of cardiovascular diseases.”
Moving forward, researchers also want to banish the stigma that fats as a group have. The body can function perfectly fine with fats as a main energy source, says co-author Simon Dankel. Basically, it doesn’t really matter if you use fats or carbohydrates as a main energy source — neither are particularly good for you, but they’re not the worst thing in the world either.
“People will say: ‘you can’t lose weight, you can’t go on any diets with saturated fats, no matter what’,” said Dr Dankel. “But in this context, we see a very positive metabolic response. You can base your energy in your diet on either on carbohydrates or fat. It doesn’t make a big difference.”
In addition to finding no risks associated with dairy intake, the study also found that cheese could be beneficial for your health. This is backed up by the fact that previous research from the University of Bergen, Norway, which reported that fatty foods such as cheese, butter, and cream could reduce the risk of heart disease when consumed in a low-calorie diet.
“We now know that milk proteins can have a blood pressure lowering effect and that some hard cheese […] reduces the amount of fat that is digested and absorbed,” Givens concluded.
This isn’t the first such review to come up with this conclusion. Just last year, another review found that “four prospective studies reported no association between cheese intake and CVD risk, whereas one reported an increased risk, two reported a decreased risk and one reported no association in men but a decreased risk in women.” So most studies they analyzed report no connection between the two, and two even report a negative correlation between dairy and heart risk — meaning dairy actually makes your heart healthier. Eating some delicious cheese to keep the doctor away? I’ll take it, even if it doesn’t rhyme.
Journal Reference: Jing GuoEmail authorArne AstrupJulie A. LovegroveLieke GijsbersDavid I. GivensSabita S. Soedamah-Muthu — Milk and dairy consumption and risk of cardiovascular diseases and all-cause mortality: dose–response meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies. DOI: 10.1007/s10654-017-0243-1