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Fiftysomething Diet: Are Foods With Whole Milk Healthy?

Whether to eat more milk-based saturated fats is still controversial

By Maureen Callahan

Over the last few years, studies have been piling up to suggest that whole milk dairy products, including cheese, might actually be better for health than reduced-fat varieties.

What gives? Are health experts really changing their minds about full-fat dairy foods and their impact on health? Is a slice of Brie or wedge of sharp cheddar just what the doctor ordered to fend off heart disease? Could a splash of creamy rich whole milk in your cereal bowl or coffee cup actually help you lose weight?

Here’s a closer look at recent research and what some scientists are thinking after revisiting the debate between whole milk versus skim milk.

Dairy Products and Weight Loss

Dozens of studies have looked at dairy products, mostly the low-fat variety, and their impact on weight loss. But in one 2006 study, Swedish researchers suggested the extra fat in a glass of whole milk or full-fat cheese could be beneficial for weight loss in middle-aged women. After following more than 19,000 women aged 40 to 55 for over nine years, they noticed those drinking one serving of whole milk or eating one serving of cheese per day put on fewer pounds than women who ate these same amounts of full-fat dairy foods but less frequently.

On its heels in 2009 came another Swedish report that followed a group of middle-aged men, ages 40 to 60, over 12 years. It found that those eating full-fat dairy — whole milk, cream, butter — were less likely to become obese (specifically central obesity or that big-belly configuration) than their counterparts who rarely or never indulged in high-fat dairy foods. (Interestingly, these are the same researchers who in 2009 found that daily intake of fruit and vegetables in combination with a high dairy fat intake was associated with a lower risk of coronary heart disease.)

Of course, these are not the first of studies to suggest that dairy (full-fat or low-fat) might have an impact on weight control. And it’s not the first time researchers have begun to speculate that certain components of dairy, perhaps even its saturated fat, might influence weight and health for the better.

Saturated Fats: Friend or Foe?

However, the issue of saturated fats, butter, red meat and health is a tangled and controversial one. The American Heart Association continues to urge all Americans over the age of 2 to limit saturated fats to less than 7 percent of daily calories; if you’re eating 2,000 calories a day, that amounts to about 16 grams of saturated fat. (One cup of whole milk weighs in with 150 calories and 5 grams of saturated fat.)

Their reason is simple. “Strong data indicates that replacing saturated fat (found in animal fat, meat and dairy) with polyunsaturated fat is associated with decreased risk of developing heart disease,” says Alice Lichtenstein, a professor of nutrition at the USDA Human Nutrition Center at Tufts University in Boston and a member of the American Heart Association’s Council on Lifestyle and Cardiometabolic Health.

Yet, studies are beginning to surface to suggest the saturated fats in dairy foods might not have as strong a negative impact on cardiovascular disease (CVD) as once thought.

In 2011, researchers looked at 17 studies on diet and CVD to find that milk intake didn’t have an impact on mortality and, in fact, was inversely linked with CVD risk. (Two of the seven researchers on that study received an unrestricted grant from the Dutch Dairy Association.) In Harvard’s 2012 Multi-Ethnic Study on Atherosclerosis, which followed 45- to 84-year-old participants for 10 years, scientists looked at specific food sources of saturated fat in diets to see if there was a direct link between certain foods (dairy was just one of the foods) and CVD risk. Dairy foods showed an inverse relation.

Researchers aren’t sure why.

Dairy, which is a major source of saturated fat for most people, is also a source of beneficial nutrients, including vitamin D, potassium, phosphorus and calcium. It’s possible those nutrients might counterbalance the unfavorable physiologic impact of saturated fat. It’s also possible that different foods, because they contain different proportions of specific saturated fats (myristic, lauric, stearic), have different effects on your blood lipids and could thereby have different impacts on CVD risk.

Even more important to consider: What is the average eater replacing saturated fat with when cutting back on it in the diet? For instance, replacing saturated fat with refined carbs or sugar isn’t good for the heart. Replacing it, on the other hand, with unsaturated fats like olives and avocado, is healthy to the heart. So many factors are at play here.

The bottom line, though:  “Whole milk does contain saturated fat. These fatty acids are shorter-chained,” or of a different structure, explains University of Delaware Food Safety and Nutrition Specialist Sue Snider. “My question is, are the saturated fats in dairy any different than saturated fats in other foods?” That answer, she says, is still far from certain.


The Milk of Choice?

So don’t expect health experts to agree about which milk is the perfect choice for good health. Not yet.

“The best advice we can give at this point,” says Lichtenstein, “is to choose reduced-fat dairy products.” She thinks the science is too limited to suggest changing those recommendations. But even if it weren’t for saturated fat, “reduced-fat dairy products are lower in calories than full fat, and the majority of us need to limit our caloric intake,” she adds.

Snider agrees about the need for more research, but suspects it’s plausible that early advice to avoid whole milk and full-fat dairy products might not have been wise. ”I can’t tell people what milk to choose, but I can tell you what the research says, and it’s that whole milk is not detrimental and may in fact have some positive benefits,” she says.

Snider is also in the camp that believes choosing a diet low in fat, saturated fat and cholesterol does not mean “never eat cheese” because it contains fat or “never eat egg yolks” because they contain cholesterol. Instead, she says it’s more about balancing high fat and high saturated fat foods with foods that have little or no fat and saturated fat.

So you know: while a cup of whole milk has 150 calories and 5 grams of saturated fat, as noted earlier,  one cup of 2 percent reduced-fat milk has 122 calories and 3 grams of saturated fat. An equal amount of nonfat milk contains 80 calories with virtually no saturated fat.

Juggling the numbers, it’s obvious that an occasional glass of whole milk or wedge of Brie (5 grams saturated fat per ounce) can fit easily in the AHA’s heart healthy diet, which allows for up to 16 grams of saturated fat per day.

In the end, what health experts say they don’t want to see is a fiftysomething crowd, already at higher risk for heart disease and weight gain due to age, using this new and provocative research about whole milk as license to go hog wild on cheese, butter and dairy.

Everything in moderation, please.



Maureen Callahan is a registered dietitian, recipe developer and lead author of the diet book review series. She is a two-time James Beard Award winner. Read More
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