Are butter, cheese and whole milk really good for you?

Milk, butter and cheese on rustic wooden background

News reports have suggested that whole milk and full-fat dairy products could be good for you, but are they really healthier than low-fat versions? We go behind the headlines.

13 September 2018

The research

New research has found lower rates of death and heart and circulatory disease in people who eat more dairy products.

The international collaboration of researchers asked over 135,000 people in 21 countries to complete a food diary at the beginning of the study, and followed their health for an average of 9.1 years.

Over the 9 year period, 3.5% of people in the group with the highest dairy intake (more than 2 servings per day) developed major cardiovascular disease compared to 4.9% of people consuming no dairy. The high intake group also had a lower rate of stroke (1.2% vs 2.9%) and death (3.4% vs 5.6%) than the no dairy group.

The research is not telling us that whole-fat dairy is any better for us than low-fat dairy

The research, published in The Lancet, found lower rates of heart and circulatory disease regardless of whether people were consuming full-fat or low-fat dairy. The research is not telling us that whole-fat dairy is any better for us than low-fat dairy.

It’s important to remember that because this study was observational, it can only show us an association between different factors rather than a cause and effect. For example we don’t know whether people who eat more dairy might also have healthier lifestyles overall.

The results support current advice that dairy can be consumed as part of a healthy balanced diet to reduce the risk of heart and circulatory diseases. The study’s authors conclude: “...consumption of dairy products should not be discouraged and perhaps even be encouraged in low-income and middle-income countries where dairy consumption is low.”

The BHF view

Victoria Taylor, Senior Dietitian at the British Heart Foundation, said: “There are a number of limitations to the research and so it's important not to jump to conclusions about this study.

“Dairy products don’t need to be excluded from the diet to prevent heart and circulatory diseases and are already part of the eatwell guide, which is the basis for our healthy eating recommendations in the UK. In this study the people with higher intakes were having about two to three portions of dairy a day, which is in line with current advice.

“Currently, it's recommended that we choose reduced fat dairy as our overall intakes of saturated fat exceed recommendations. This recommendation won’t change as a result of this research. More research is needed to help us confirm the true role of dairy in relation to heart and circulatory disease.”

How the research was reported

Many newspapers focussed on the fact that the study found better outcomes in people consuming more than two servings per day of whole-fat dairy compared to those consuming less than half a serving. The Sun reported: “Drinking three glasses of whole milk a day can help you live longer, a huge global study has discovered. It can also protect against heart disease and stroke — flying in the face of current medical advice to choose skimmed instead.”

This coverage gave the impression that the study had revealed whole-fat dairy to be better for your health than low-fat versions - however, the study did not find this. It simply showed that higher overall dairy consumption – whether whole-fat or low-fat dairy – was associated with a benefit.

National guidelines are based on evidence that consuming too much saturated fat is known to increase cholesterol levels, which is a known risk factor for heart and circulatory diseases

Other coverage focused on cheese and/or butter, but this did not accurately reflect the study either. For instance Newsweek led with the headline “Eating cheese and butter every day linked to living longer”. But although the study found a benefit from consuming dairy products generally, when the scientists looked at specific types of dairy products, they found that intake of cheese or butter was not associated with any health benefits, whereas consuming at least one serving of milk or yoghurt was linked with better outcomes.

The Express suggested the study represented a “moo-turn” and called into question national guidelines which encourage people to opt for low-fat dairy products in order to lower their saturated fat intake. These guidelines are based on evidence that consuming too much saturated fat is known to increase cholesterol levels, which is a known risk factor for heart and circulatory diseases. This study does not provide any evidence that challenges that. Nor does it show that full-fat dairy is better than low-fat dairy.

Earlier this year the Government’s Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN) published a consultation on saturated fat, which is part of a process of regularly assessing available evidence to see if guidelines should change. The British Heart Foundation’s advice around nutrition and lifestyle is always based on national guidelines, so we will be paying close attention to any future changes to make sure we reflect these in our information.

Many papers acknowledged the importance of assessing new studies in the context of all available evidence, and quoted an accompanying article published in The Lancet, in which experts stated that these results are “...not the ultimate seal of approval for recommending whole-fat dairy over its low-fat or skimmed counterparts. Readers should be cautious and should treat this study only as yet another piece of evidence (albeit a large one) in the literature.”

  • Is your dairy knowledge udderly brilliant? Take our milk quiz to find out! 
  • Get more detail about the fat and salt content of different cheeses in our guide to "The good, the bad and the ugly" of cheeses.

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