What’s best: full fat vs. low fat dairy products? Part 1


“Do you recommend eating full-fat or lower-fat dairy products?” asks Enlightened Eater Facebook fan Karen Jorgenson Cooper.

Karen, it’s no wonder you’re wondering about dairy fat these days. With headlines such as “butter is back” screaming out at you, it’s no surpise that many people might want to pitch their lower fat dairy products. But resist the temptation. That’s not to say you can’t enjoy some full-fat ones, though you might want to do so in moderation.

Yes, research is showing that compared to sugar and refined carbohydrates, butter is a better choice. I absolutely agree as more and more research is pointing to a growing list of health ills associated with eating sugar and refined carbs including diabetes, heart disease, cognitive decline and certain cancers.

There’s more to the story, though. Yes, while the headlines did trumpet butter as being exonerated in the studies looking at the risk of cardiovascular disease, the media stories only told part of the story. Foods containing saturated fat did indeed come out as a healthier option than did refined carbohydrates BUT when saturated fat is replaced with unsaturated fat, the latter offered protection against cardiovascular disease.

In research published in September, 2015 in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, Harvard University scientists directly compare saturated fat with other types of fats and different types of carbohydrates in relation to heart disease risk using participants from two long-running investigations, the Nurses’ Health Study (84,628 women) and the Health Professionals Follow-up Study (42,908 men).

The researchers found that people who replace saturated fat in their diets with refined carbohydrates do not lower their risk of heart disease. On the other hand, those who replace saturated fats with unsaturated fats (found in vegetable oils and nuts) or whole grains do lower their heart disease risk.

Senior author Frank Hu, professor of nutrition and epidemiology states, “Our research does not exonerate saturated fat,” said Hu. “In terms of heart disease risk, saturated fat and refined carbohydrates appear to be similarly unhealthful.”

Simply put: just because a food is less bad for you doesn’t mean it’s good for you.
Dairy fat is predominately saturated fat and while it’s not the dietary demon once thought, on its own, butter doesn’t offer the health benefits such as those found in fats like extra virgin olive oil, nuts and seeds and fish.

The latest research on the topic which looked at different types of dietary fat and mortality, published this past week in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine, backs this up. The Harvard study, which included 126,233 participants, found that trans fat had the most worst impact on health. Every 2% higher intake of trans fat was associated with a 16% higher chance of premature death during the study period. Higher consumption of saturated fats was also linked with greater mortality risk.

On the other hand, the intake of high amounts of unsaturated fats—both polyunsaturated and monounsaturated—was associated with between 11% and 19% lower overall mortality compared with the same number of calories from carbohydrates. Among the polyunsaturated fats, both omega-6, found in most plant oils, and omega-3 fatty acids, found in fish and soy and canola oils, were associated with lower risk of premature death.

When it comes to other dairy products, such as cheese, yogurt and milk, there’s more to consider than when you look at butter alone. I’ll cover that in my next post including the research looking at weight management, satiety and various types of dairy products.

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Categories: Nutrition News, Research Roundup, Your Questions Answered

Author:Rosie Schwartz

Rosie Schwartz is a Toronto-based consulting dietitian and writer.

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