If you’re dieting, giving up whole milk, butter, cream, and cheese may be the wrong thing to do, according to a new study published in the journal Nutrition & Diabetes. The study found that people who eat and drink more dairy—including high-fat dairy products—have a lower body fat percentage and lower body mass index as well as lower blood pressure.
Researchers from the University of Dublin, Ireland studied the effect of dairy on 1,500 adults ages 18 to 90 years who wrote down in a food diary the food and beverages they consumed over four days. Fasting blood samples were collected from 897 of the study subjects. Dairy was defined as milk, cheese, yogurt, cream, and butter.
People who consumed the most dairy had the lowest body mass index, percent body fat, waist circumference, and waist-to-hip ratio. They also had lower systolic and diastolic blood pressure.
The study also found that eating cheese was not associated with higher body fat or with low-density lipoprotein (LDL) “bad” cholesterol. Too much LDL cholesterol in the blood sticks to the walls of arteries, blocking blood flow and potentially leading to heart disease.
“What we saw was that in the high consumers [of cheese] they had a significantly higher intake of saturated fat than the non-consumers and the low consumers and yet there was no difference in their LDL Cholesterol levels,” said Emma Feeney, the lead researcher on the paper.
Even though people who consumed the most reduced-fat milk and yogurt had the highest scores on a Healthy Eating Index as well as lower fat and saturated fat intakes, they also had higher triglyceride levels and total cholesterol. These people also tended to eat and drink more carbohydrates.
The researchers concluded that overall, milk and yogurt consumption is associated with a better body type, but dairy is less healthy when eaten as part of a low-fat, high-carbohydrate diet.
While the research seems counterintuitive, dairy products, especially those that are high-fat, contain conjugated linoleic acid, CLA for short. CLA is linked to weight loss and improved heart health, among other benefits. Its presence in high-fat dairy may explain the results of this study, although the researchers did not investigate whether this was the case.
Source: E L Feeney, A O’Sullivan, A P Nugent, B McNulty, J Walton, A Flynn, and E R Gibney. Patterns of dairy food intake, body composition and markers of metabolic health in Ireland: results from the National Adult Nutrition Survey. Nutrition & Diabetes, 2017;7:e243; doi:10.1038/nutd.2016.54