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Dairy and heart disease risk

Has the thinking changed about dairy products and risk of heart disease?

Updated: 2020-07-16

Answer Section

It's long been thought that foods high in saturated fat raise blood cholesterol levels, particularly low-density lipoprotein (LDL, or "bad") cholesterol. High LDL and total cholesterol levels are risk factors for cardiovascular disease (CVD), such as strokes and heart attacks.

Research now doesn't support that connection. Recent analyses of dairy consumption and risk of CVD and mortality have found predominantly neutral or even marginally beneficial associations.

It's not completely understood why the saturated fat in dairy seems to have no negative effects on the aforementioned risk factors. Beyond the type of saturated fat, it could be the other nutrients in dairy have preventive effects.

Dairy foods provide not only calcium and protein but also vitamins A, D and B-12, riboflavin, and minerals such as phosphorus, magnesium, potassium and zinc. Many of these nutrients have antioxidant and maintenance functions, such as cell growth and repair, proper muscle function, and play a role in blood pressure control.

Dairy products also have probiotics — beneficial bacteria that promote intestinal health and may play a role in weight control.

Of course, dairy can be high in calories and this can't be ignored, because weight gain and obesity are strong independent risk factors for many diseases.

So if you enjoy dairy products, they can have a place in your diet. Choose flavorful cheese, plain or low-sugar yogurts and a glass of milk at a meal or following a workout. Keep the focus on a balanced, portion-controlled diet to maintain balance in your calorie and nutrient intake.