If there’s anything stopping us from eating a veritable mountain of cheese at every meal, it’s the longstanding, omnipresent idea that cheese is, uh, bad for you. For a long time now, Americans have been told by the powers that be—namely, the official dietary guidelines published by the USDA, as well as outlines on saturated fat put out by the American Heart Association (AHA)—that fats, especially the saturated types found in full-fat dairy products, are unhealthy, and that we should choose low-fat options instead. But the results of a new study go directly against this commonly received wisdom and gives hope to cheese addicts everywhere.
The study, published earlier this month by the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, found no association between the regular consumption of cheese, whole milk, and other full-fat dairy products and any increased risk of heart attack, stroke or death.
The study followed a group of nearly 3,000 adults under the age of 65 who were free of cardiovascular disease for more than two decades, checking in on their health measures at six, 13, and 22 years. It found that the dairy-lovers among the group, identified by the fatty acid concentrations present in their blood, were no more likely to face adverse health effects than their dairy-abstaining counterparts.
"Our findings not only support, but also significantly strengthen, the growing body of evidence which suggests that dairy fat, contrary to popular belief, does not increase risk of heart disease or overall mortality in older adults," said Marcia Otto, the study's lead author and an assistant professor at the University of Texas School of Public Health, in a statement.
As Michelle Allison—the self-proclaimed “Fat Nutritionist,” a registered dietitian, and an advocate of flexible, not-overly-restrictive diets—notes, the study’s results are compelling.
“The conclusion is pretty sexy: Eating saturated fat from dairy doesn’t appear to be associated with increased cardiovascular risk,” she told MUNCHIES. “I think I, like many people, am interested in ANY research that says eating full-fat dairy doesn’t seem to increase cardiovascular disease risk, since ice cream, cheese, and whole milk are all extremely tasty, and also culturally meaningful foods that are deeply embedded in lots of people’s lives.”
Allison noted some strengths of the study, including that fact that its authors measured circulating fatty acids in the blood as opposed to just asking participants how much dairy they ate.
“It can be difficult for people to remember accurately, or tempting to underreport since there is a lot of potential for shame in telling a stranger what and how much you eat,” she said. “So actually measuring multiple markers of those foods in people’s blood—and measuring them repeatedly, not just at the start of the study—is a win for accuracy.”
On the other hand, Allison said, there were some weaknesses in the study, too. She explained that it was a prospective study as opposed to a controlled trial, meaning that instead of rigorously controlling participants’ diet by giving them a certain amount of full-fat dairy to eat and measuring the results, the study’s authors simply let them continue their normal eating patterns.
“Prospective studies are good when you need to measure something—like a long-term health risk—that only builds up over years and decades, and it’s also useful for studying things as they happen in people’s real lives, not a controlled laboratory setting,” she said. “But that also means studies like this cannot prove causal relationships between two things—like eating dairy fat and having a heart attack—the way a controlled trial can.”
When it comes to the actual science, the study’s findings tie in with a rising amount of evidence that the low-fat diet ideas we were sold in the 90s and beyond (remember the ubiquitousness of those bright green Snackwell’s boxes?) don’t actually help our health, and can actually harm it. The traditional high-fat, high-cholesterol foods that our grandparents enjoyed—like butter, egg yolks, and red meat—actually confer a host of benefits not offered by low-fat stand-ins. Indeed, the high-carb diets that people typically adhere to when they’re avoiding fats can wreak havoc with blood sugar and insulin levels, leading to diabetes and heart disease.
While the new study lends additional support to the abandonment of the low-fat, low-fun diet—cheeseburgers for all!—Allison asserts that health is a complicated matter that can’t be dictated by choosing one diet over another.
“It’s not just food that helps or harms our health—it’s food and a million other things combined, and it can be impossible to untangle that,” she said. “Your body belongs to you, and you are the one who must live with your choices. If you like dairy, you can eat it. If you don’t, or your body doesn’t, you don’t have to. No one needs a study to have permission to eat a food.”
We concur. Now excuse us while we head to the fridge and slam an enormous wedge of this dank Gouda that tastes like salted caramel. To health!