Once upon a time, whole-fat dairy products were considered wholesome and healthy sources of protein, calcium, probiotics and fat. However, as the desire for good heart health attracted more attention in the 1960s, the low saturated fat and cholesterol content of low-fat dairy products were deemed to be the superior option by the Dietary Guidelines for America (established by the HHS and USDA) and the American Heart Association, and have continued to be so today.
The current dietary guidelines recommend consumption of three servings of dairy/day and specify these servings to be low-fat or fat-free. However, in recent years, these guidelines have become controversial and scientists call into question whether whole-fat dairy should continue to be discouraged. Focusing on low-fat products is based on the assumption that saturated fat is the main offender behind cardiovascular disease (CVD), obesity, diabetes and other chronic metabolic conditions.
Past studies that have linked saturated fats to critical health concerns held the belief that all saturated fats from animals and dairy sources are the same, but we are learning that this not the case. There is a growing body of evidence suggesting that saturated fats from dairy products actually reduce CVD risk while those from meat increase the risk.
Recent studies suggest that whole-fat dairy is associated with lower risks of obesity, cancer and CVD. Evidence clearly documents an increase in LDL cholesterol (bad cholesterol) with whole-fat dairy consumption, but it also demonstrates an increase in the HDL (good cholesterol), which may offset the effects of higher LDL levels. The controversy, then, is whether dairy should continue to be stripped of its fat content, as it may not play a major role in decreasing health as once thought – and may even be protective.
Though research now supports the benefits of whole-fat dairy, more research is needed to determine why this may be. One theory suggests that the extra sugar added to low-fat dairy products after fat removal may hamper metabolism. Another theory suggest that whole-fat dairy has a positive effect on the enzymes that control blood pressure and the enzyme responsible for the breakdown of fat. Dairy products also expand the variety of gut bacteria, which has been shown to improve insulin sensitivity and immune system function. A healthy gut can therefore reduce the risk of obesity, diabetes, CVD and more.
Even with all this good news, it doesn’t mean we should all go out and buy those delicious, creamy dairy products! It’s still important to remember that fat is a high-calorie nutrient containing nine calories per gram. The key is to eat in moderation. When devouring that tasty cheese or yogurt, add in fruit, nuts, or whole grain crackers, rather than eating a slice of pizza.
So, if you can’t seem to resist your passionate love for ice cream, not to fret! Just remember to not overdo it.