Is Full Fat Dairy Bad For You? Here's What Science Says

Dairy has gotten a bad rap over the years with its saturated fat content said to increase your risk of cardiovascular disease, one of Australia’s biggest killers. But new research is busting that long held belief, finding no significant link between dairy fats and premature death.

The study – published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition – analysed nearly 3,000 adults over the age of 65 for 22 years, measuring their plasma for levels of different fatty acids associated with dairy consumption. Their findings showed that none of the fatty acids types were significantly linked with total mortality and one of the varieties of fatty acids was actually associated with a 42 percent lower risk of dying from stroke.

“Consistent with previous findings, our results highlight the need to revisit current dietary guidance on whole fat dairy foods, which are rich sources of nutrients such as calcium and potassium. These are essential for health not only during childhood but throughout life, particularly also in later years when undernourishment and conditions like osteoporosis are more common,” said the study’s first author Marcia Otto.

“Consumers have been exposed to so much different and conflicting information about diet, particularly in relation to fats,” she added. “It’s therefore important to have robust studies, so people can make more balanced and informed choices based on scientific fact rather than hearsay.”

Accredited Practising Dietitian Chloe McLeod told Women’s Health that it’s an area where people are really confused.

For so long it was ‘low fat is good, high fat is bad’. I think people are starting to realise that fat is ok, but it’s important to not just look at things and apply a blanket rule of ‘full fat dairy is now is good and low fat dairy is bad’. Everything has its place and there’s different ways it can be used.”

Accredited Practising Dietitian Nat von Bertouch says that more and more research is demonstrating that the saturated fat in dairy products may not have the same negative effects on health as those found in processed foods like biscuits and cakes, for example.

The emerging research is changing the way we think about full fat dairy products, particularly milk and yoghurt, because even the full fat varieties are relatively low in fat at around four percent,” she told Women’s Health. “It is becoming more likely that the saturated fat in dairy is not having the negative effects we first thought due to its interaction with other components in dairy like calcium and protein.”

“Most people are not consuming enough dairy and calcium so the advice I would be is to include dairy regularly – whatever variety you like,” she added. 

So does this mean we can bust out the brie in celebration? Chloe says it’s dependent on other components of your diet. Basically, it’s all about balance.

“If someone wants to have full fat dairy I will generally encourage them to do so, however if their diet is high in other types of fat, they don’t want to reduce those types of fat and we’re needing to reduce caloric intake for some reason then maybe I’d recommend low fat options.”

Both the Australian Dietary Guidelines and the Heart Foundation currently recommend choosing reduced or low fat milk, yoghurt and cheese, however some researchers pointed out that some of these flavoured options can contain large amounts of added sugar, which comes with its own range of health concerns.

“Low fat and skim milks are still a very suitable option for people to choose,” says Nat. “I would warn people to be wary of some reduced fat yoghurts however as these can be loaded with sugar. The key is checking the label and ensuring sugar is less than 10g/100g.”

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