It's a question every cheese-lover has considered: Is my dairy habit unhealthy? Do I really have to buy that gross low-fat cheese to ward off an early demise?
There's no doubt that dairy products can be good for your overall wellbeing. Milk, cheese, and yogurt, for instance, provide calcium and vitamin D, which are critical for the body's normal function. You can get these vitamins elsewhere, either from other foods like fish and leafy vegetables or from supplements, but "not that many foods that are as nutrient-dense as dairy, lean meat, or eggs," says Connie Weaver, a professor of nutrition science at Purdue University.
But delicious dairy isn't without health risks. Full-fat products like whole milk, as well as most kinds of cheese, butter, and ice cream are higher in saturated fat, a substance also found in other animal products like red meat. Saturated fat is not the evil substance it was once purported to be—you can consume these things in moderation without putting your health at risk. But eating more than the recommended 10 percent of your daily calories from saturated fat has been associated with high cholesterol and weight gain, which could put people at increased risk of heart disease (note that the same does not apply for unsaturated fats like nuts, cooking oil, and fish, which have been found to reduce the risk of diabetes and heart disease). The risk is different depending on whether you need to reduce the number of calories you consume.
Yes, this is kind of nuanced. A recent review published in the European Journal of Epidemiology further complicates the picture. Based on the findings of 29 studies of 938,465 patients over the last 35 years, the researchers concluded that consuming full-fat dairy didn't increase people's risk of heart attack, stroke, or death.
Diets that are high in protein and low in refined sugars and carbohydrates have been associated with better health outcomes than the high-carbohydrate, low-fat diets nutritionists used to recommend to those trying to lose weight. And some nutritionists have found that eating full-fat dairy can be more satisfying and filling, reducing the temptation to consume more calories later on.
But the findings of this review, which was funded by three pro-dairy groups (they had no influence over the research, according to the Guardian), doesn't give you free license to go hog-wild on a slab of brie if you're trying to stave off heart disease. Just because a food isn't associated with poor health doesn't mean eating it makes you healthy, says Qi Sun, an assistant professor in the department of nutrition at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. If you're concerned about your weight and the increased risk of diseases associated with it, consuming low-fat dairy is still a great way to cut your caloric intake.
"My bottom line is, if you love to eat dairy, it's okay, but you need to focus on the healthier version,"—that is, lower fat versions of the products you love, Sun says.
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If you're frustrated by how nutritional guidelines seem to flip-flop, you're not alone. Headlines crow conflicting conclusions seemingly nonstop—chocolate is clearly a candy, but now it'll help my heart? Vitamin C can help you kick a cold… or can it? And don't even get me started on red wine.
Part of the reason it seems to change so much is that nutrition studies are really hard to do. You need a long time and a lot of people to show that a particular type of food or element of nutrition has a clear effect, and people are terrible at remembering what they put in their mouths. And because there are so many different elements of diet, even the best observational studies come up with correlations, which isn't the same as saying a particular type of food results in a particular health effect.
Those conclusions get further muddled by industry influence, Sun adds: "It's not that [the studies] are really unscientific, but sometimes their interpretation would be changed in a certain direction." And because everyone is generally trying to eat better, people put a lot of stock in small studies that might not provide enough evidence for you to change your entire diet.
If you follow nutrition long enough, you find that dietary recommendations may change a little bit periodically, but the fundamentals don't. The rules are more or less the same thing you learned back in grade school—eat mostly fruits and vegetables, and everything in moderation. "I worry when people attack one food group," Weaver says. "If we attack whole groups, we are putting people at risk for not getting enough nutrients." The best way to avoid the confusing churn of small studies about nutrition is to follow the USDA dietary guidelines, which are updated every five years and represent researchers' best consensus on nutrition overall.
In the end, there's no need to fear full-fat dairy. For children who won't consume milk unless it's full-fat, it's most important to get those nutrients, Weaver says. But for people concerned about obesity and heart disease, the weight of pros and cons is a little different. Low-fat dairy might be your best bet, after all.
"The relationship between diary and health is overwhelmingly positive," Weaver says. "I don't think there are too many studies on the other side saying that full-fat dairy is bad for you. But logically it contributes calories…any dairy product where you can have a choice of a lower fat level is one tool in your arsenal to work on preventing obesity."
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