Eating Of The Green

Why Is Eating Green Good For Your Heart? 

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

You may be one of the millions of Americans who celebrated St. Patrick’s Day a couple of weeks ago. If so, you may have sung the famous Irish folk song “The Wearing of the Green”. If you are Irish, that song has special meaning for you. However, when I hear that song, I think of “Eating of the Green.”

And when I think of eating green, I don’t mean that everything we eat should be green. I am thinking of whole fruits and vegetables in a variety of colors. We have known for years that fruits and vegetables are good for our health. Consumption of fruits and vegetables is associated a lower risk of high blood pressure, heart disease, cancer, inflammatory diseases, and much more.

For today’s health tip, I am going to focus on heart health and an unexpected explanation for how fruits and vegetables reduce our risk of heart disease.

Why Is Eating Green Good For Your Heart?

health benefits of beetroot juiceWe have assumed that whole fruits and vegetables lower our risk of heart disease because they are low in saturated fats and provide heart-healthy nutrients, phytonutrients, and fiber. All of that is true. But could there be more?

Recent research has suggested that the nitrates found naturally in fruits and vegetables may also play a role in protecting our hearts. Here is what recent research shows:

  • The nitrates from fruits and vegetables are converted to nitrite by bacteria in our mouth and intestines.
    • Fruits and vegetables account for 80% of the nitrate in our diet. The rest comes from a variety of sources including the nitrate added as a preservative to processed meats.
    • Although all fruits and vegetables contain nitrates, the best sources are green leafy vegetables and beetroot. [Beet greens are delicious and also a good source of nitrate, but beetroot is the part of the beet we usually consume.]
  • Nitrite is absorbed from our intestine and converted to nitric oxide by a variety of enzymes in our tissues.
  • Both reactions require antioxidants like vitamin C, which are also found in fruits and vegetables.

Nitric oxide has several heart healthy benefits. For example:

  • It helps reduce inflammation in the lining of blood vessels. Inflammation stimulates atherosclerosis, blood clot formation, and is associated with an increased risk of heart disease.
  • It relaxes the smooth muscle cells that surround our blood vessels. This makes the blood vessels more flexible and helps reduce blood pressure.
  • It prevents smooth muscle cells from proliferating, which prevents them from invading and constricting our arteries. This, in turn, has the potential to reduce the risk of atherosclerosis.
  • It prevents platelet aggregation. This, in turn, has the potential to reduce the risk of heart attack and stroke due to blood clots that block the flow of blood to our heart or brain.

It is well established that nitrates from fruits and vegetables reduce blood pressure. More importantly, they can help slow the gradual increase in blood pressure as we age.

However, few studies have asked whether this reduction in blood pressure translates into improved cardiovascular outcomes. This study (CP Bondonno et al, European Journal of Epidemiology, 36: 813-825, 2021) was designed to answer that question.

How Was This Study Done?

Clinical StudyThis study made use of data from the Danish Diet, Cancer, and Health Program. That program enrolled 53,150 participants from Copenhagen and Aarhus between 1993 and 1997 and followed them for an average of 21 years. None of the participants had a diagnosis of cancer or heart disease at the beginning of the study.

Other characteristics of the participants at the time they were enrolled in the study were:

  • 46% male
  • Average age = 56
  • BMI = 26 (>20% overweight)
  • Average systolic blood pressure = 140 mg Hg
  • Average diastolic blood pressure = 84 mg Hg

At the beginning of the study, participants filled out a 192-item food frequency questionnaire that assessed their average intake of various food and beverage items over the previous 12 months. The vegetable nitrate content of their diets was analyzed using a comprehensive database of the nitrate content of 178 vegetables. For those vegetables not consumed raw, the nitrate content was reduced by 50% to account for the nitrate loss during cooking.

Blood pressure was measured at the beginning of the study. Data on the incidence (first diagnosis) of heart disease during the study was obtained from the Danish National Patient Registry. Data were collected on diagnosis of the following heart health parameters:

  • Cardiovascular disease (all diseases of the circulatory system).
  • Ischemic heart disease (lack of sufficient blood flow to the heart). The symptoms of ischemic heart disease range from angina to myocardial infarction (heart attack).
  • Ischemic stroke (lack of sufficient blood flow to the brain).
  • Hemorrhagic stroke (bleeding in brain).
  • Heart failure.
  • Peripheral artery disease (lack of sufficient blood flow to the extremities).

Is Nitrate From Vegetables Good For Your Heart?

strong heartIntake of nitrate from vegetables ranged from 18 mg/day (<1/3 serving of nitrate-rich vegetables per day) to 168 mg (almost 3 servings of nitrate-rich vegetables per day). The participants were grouped into quintiles based on their vegetable nitrate intake. When the group with the highest vegetable nitrate intake was compared to the group with the lowest vegetable nitrate intake:

  • Systolic blood pressure was reduced by 2.58 mg Hg.
  • Diastolic blood pressure was reduced by 1.38 mg Hg.
  • Risk of cardiovascular disease was reduced by 14%.
  • Risk of ischemic heart disease (angina and heart attack) was reduced by 13%.
  • Risk of ischemic stroke (stroke caused by lack of blood flow to the brain) was reduced by 14%.
  • Risk of heart failure was reduced by 17%.
  • Risk of peripheral artery disease was reduced by 31%.
  • Risk of hemorrhagic stroke (bleeding in the brain) was not significantly reduced.

Two other observations were of interest:

  • Blood pressure and risk of peripheral artery disease decreased with increasing vegetable nitrate intake in a relatively linear fashion. However, the other parameters of heart disease plateaued at a modest intake of vegetable nitrate intake (around one cup of nitrate-rich vegetables per day). This suggests that as little as one serving of nitrate-rich vegetables a day is enough to provide some heart health benefits.
  • Only about 21.9% of the improvement in heart health could be explained by the decrease in blood pressure. This is not surprising when you consider the other beneficial effects of nitric oxide described above.

The authors concluded, “Consumption of at least ~60 mg/day of vegetable nitrate (~ one serving of green leafy vegetables or beets) may mitigate risk of cardiovascular disease.”

Are Nitrates Good For You Or Bad For You?

questionsYou are probably thinking, “Wait a minute. I thought nitrates and nitrites were supposed to be bad for me. Which is it? Are nitrates good for me or bad for me?”

It turns out that nitrates and nitrites are kind of like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. They can be either good or bad. It depends on the food they are in and your overall diet.

Remember the beginning of this article when I said that the conversion of nitrates to nitric oxide depended on the presence of antioxidants? Vegetables are great sources of antioxidants. So, when we get our nitrate from vegetables, most of it is converted to nitric oxide. And, as I discussed above, nitric oxide is good for us.

However, when nitrates and nitrites are added to processed meats as a preservative, the story is much different. Processed meats have zero antioxidants. And the protein in the meats is broken down to amino acids in our intestine. The amino acids combine with nitrate to form nitrosamines, which are cancer-causing chemicals. Nitrosamines are bad for us.

Of course, we don’t eat individual foods by themselves. We eat them in the context of a meal. If you eat small amounts of nitrate-preserved processed meats in the context of a meal with antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables, some of the nitrate will be converted to nitric oxide rather than nitrosamines. The processed meat won’t be as bad for you.

Eating Of The Green

spinachYour mother was right. You should eat your fruits and vegetables!

  • The USDA recommends at least 3 servings of vegetables and 2 servings of fruit a day.
  • Based on this study, at least one of those servings should be nitrate-rich vegetables like green leafy vegetables and beets.
  • If you don’t like any of those, radishes, turnips, watercress, Bok choy, Chinese cabbage, kohlrabi, chicory leaf, onion, and fresh garlic are also excellent sources of nitrate.
  • The good news is that you may not need to eat green leafy vegetables and beets with every meal. If this study is correct, one serving per day may have heart health benefits. That means you can enjoy a wide variety of fresh fruits and vegetables as you try to meet the USDA recommendations.

Finally, if you don’t like any of those foods, you may be asking, “Can’t I just take a nitrate supplement?”

  • For blood pressure, there are dozens of clinical trials, and the answer seems to be yes – especially when the nitrate comes from vegetable sources and the supplement also contains an antioxidant like vitamin C.
  • For heart health benefits, the answer is likely to be yes, but clinical trials to confirm that would take decades. Double blind, placebo-controlled trials of that duration are not feasible, so we will never know for sure.
  • Moreover, you would not be getting all the other health benefits of a diet full of fresh fruits and vegetables. Supplementation has its benefits, but it is not meant to replace a healthy diet.

The Bottom Line

We have known for years that fruits and vegetables are good for our hearts. We have assumed that was because whole fruits and vegetables are low in saturated fats and provide heart-healthy nutrients, phytonutrients, and fiber. But could there be more?

It is well established that nitrates from fruits and vegetables reduce blood pressure. More importantly, they can help slow the gradual increase in blood pressure as we age.

However, few studies have asked whether this reduction in blood pressure translates into improved cardiovascular outcomes. A recent study was designed to answer that question.

When the study compared people with the highest vegetable nitrate intake to people with the lowest vegetable nitrate intake:

  • Blood pressure was significantly reduced.
  • The risk of cardiovascular disease was reduced by 14%.
  • Risk of ischemic heart disease (angina and heart attack) was reduced by 13%.
  • Risk of ischemic stroke (stroke caused by lack of blood flow to the brain) was reduced by 14%.
  • Risk of heart failure was reduced by 17%.
  • Risk of peripheral artery disease was reduced by 31%.
  • Blood pressure and risk of peripheral artery disease decreased with increasing vegetable nitrate intake in a relatively linear fashion.
  • However, the other parameters of heart disease plateaued at a modest intake of vegetable nitrate intake (around one cup of nitrate-rich vegetables per day). This suggests that as little as one serving of nitrate-rich vegetables a day is enough to provide some heart health benefits.

The authors concluded, “Consumption of at least ~60 mg/day of vegetable nitrate (~ one serving of green leafy vegetables or beets) may mitigate risk of cardiovascular disease.”

Of course, you may have heard that nitrates and nitrites are bad for you. I discuss that in the article above.

For more details about this study and what it means for you, read the article above.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.

Is Margarine Healthier Than Butter?

What Should You Put On Your Toast?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

The Checkered History Of Margarine

MargarineMany of you may have seen the recent headlines proclaiming that a recent study has shown that margarine is healthier than butter.

  • Some of you may be saying, “I don’t believe it.”
  • Others may be saying, “Of course. Hasn’t that always been true.”

So, to clear up the confusion, let me share a brief history of margarine.

  • Margarine was invented in 1869 by a French chemist in response to a request from Napoleon III to create a poor man’s butter substitute. Napoleon’s intentions weren’t entirely altruistic. He also wanted a cheaper butter substitute for his armies.
  • Margarine initially encountered a strong headwind in this country. The dairy lobby influenced congress and state legislatures to pass numerous laws designed to increase the cost and reduce the desirability of margarine.
  • In the 1950s the ground started to shift. Scientists and the medical community started to recognize that saturated fats were a major contributor to heart disease. Suddenly, butter became a villain, something to avoid.
    • But that was a problem. Butter was preferred spread for bread and toast. It was used for cooking. It was ubiquitous. You may even remember the popular “I like bread and butter” song. What was a person to do?
  • At that time margarine was made by partially hydrogenating vegetable oils (usually corn oil because it was the cheapest). The hydrogenation converted some of the unsaturated fats in vegetable oils to saturated fats so that margarine would not be in liquid form at room temperature. However, the total amount of saturated fat in margarine was less than in butter, and the ratio of polyunsaturated fat to saturated fats was much healthier. Margarine took on a new luster. It was now the healthier alternative to butter.
    • Once margarine attained the “healthier” status, most of the anti-margarine laws were quickly abolished, and margarine quickly outpaced butter as the spread of choice.
  • In the 1980s the ground shifted again. A French study found the margarine increased the risk of heart disease more than butter. Further studies showed that the hydrogenation process created a novel type of fat called trans fats. By the 1990s it was widely accepted that trans fats increased the risk of heart disease even more than saturated fats.
    • Margarine became the villain, and butter was considered the more natural, healthier spread. By 2000 sales of butter once more surpassed those of margarine.
  • In 2018 the ground shifted once again. After almost 20 years of deliberation, the FDA banned trans fats from the American food supply as of 2018. Margarine no longer contained trans fats.

Today’s study (C Weber et al, Public Health Nutrition, doi:10.1017/S1368980021004511) asks whether the reformulated, trans-fat-free margarines are once again a healthier alternative to butter.

Is Margarine Healthier Than Butter? 

Margarine-Versus-ButterThe study analyzed the fat composition of 53 margarine tub or squeeze products, 18 margarine stick products, 12 margarine-butter blend products and compared them with the fat composition of butter. The results are shown below:

There was no detectable trans fat in any of the margarine products. So, based on saturated fat content and the ratio of unsaturated fats to saturated fats, the margarine products were all healthier than butter. This is what the paper concluded.

Mean % of Total Fat In:

Margarine

Tub or Tube

Margarine

Sticks

Margarine-

Butter Blends

Butter
SFA* 29% 38% 38% 60%
MUFA* 36% 34% 43% 26%
PUFA* 33% 29% 13% 4%
*SFA = Saturated fats, MUFA = Monounsaturated fats,

PUFA = Polyunsaturated fats

But let’s look a bit deeper. First, we should look at the fat sources.

  • The saturated fat in the margarine products comes from either palm or coconut oil. There are claims that these plant saturated fats may be healthier than saturated fats from animal sources. But there are no long-term studies to back up those claims, So, I will simply consider them equivalent to any other saturated fat for this review.

Next, we should look at the labels.

  • The labels of most butter products are simple. Butter is sweet cream and salt. Unsalted butter is sweet cream and natural flavoring (usually lactic acid). This is the way that butter has been made for hundreds of years.
  • Margarine products are manufactured foods. They didn’t come from a cow. Their labels are significantly longer. And you should read the labels carefully.
    • Some margarine products are made with natural ingredients.
    • However, many margarine products contain preservatives and artificial flavors.

So, choosing between margarine products and butter is not as simple as looking at saturated fat content alone.

But what if you didn’t have to choose between margarine and butter? What if there were other options to consider?

What Should You Put On Your Toast?

Peanut Butter and Jelly Sandwich on Whole WheatOnce you decide to look beyond margarine and butter you will find lots of healthy options. For example:

  • If you have ever eaten at a fine Italian or Greek restaurant, you may have had your bread served with olive oil to dip it in. Of course, this may be a better option for lunch and dinner than for breakfast. (I don’t think jam would pair well with olive oil.)
  • Nut butters are an excellent choice any time of day. Peanut and almond butters are the most popular, but there are many other nut butters to choose from.
  • Avocado is another excellent choice.
  • This just scratches the surface. There are healthier options for almost every palate.

If you look at the fat composition of my top four suggestions, you can readily see why they are healthier choices than either margarine or butter. They are much lower in saturated fat and high in heart healthy monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats.

Mean % of Total Fat In:

Olive

Oil

Almond

Butter

Peanut

Butter

Avocado
SFA* 14% 9% 22% 16%
MUFA* 74% 64% 53% 71%
PUFA* 12% 27% 25% 13%
*SFA = Saturated fats, MUFA = Monounsaturated fats,

PUFA = Polyunsaturated fats

 

But that is just part of the story:

  • Nut butters are also a good source of protein. And both nut butters and avocados provide nutrients, phytonutrients, and fiber you don’t find in margarine or butter.

There are also labels to consider:

  • Avocados are whole foods and don’t require labels. There are no other ingredients. What you see is what you get.
  • Olive oil is a bit more complicated. It is often blended with cheaper oils to reduce the cost, and that doesn’t always show up on the label. My best advice is to get extra virgin olive oil from a brand you trust.
  • With nut butters, you should read the label. For example, the ingredient label for almond butter should list almonds as the sole ingredient. Peanut butter should just list peanuts. However, some brands add other oils, sugar, emulsifying agents, etc. These are the brands you should leave on the shelf.

Our “go-to” spread is almond butter. I like it with cinnamon sprinkled on top, although sliced bananas and cinnamon is another excellent choice.

As for butter, we still like it on baked sweet potatoes and corn on the cob. We freeze our butter and cut off a slice whenever we need it. A stick of butter lasts us many months.

The Bottom Line

Now that trans fats have been removed from margarine products a recent study revisited the question as to whether margarine or butter was the healthier choice. On the basis of their saturated fat content, the study concluded that margarine products were healthier than butter.

However, that is just part of the story. When you look at the labels:

  • The labels of most butter products are simple. Butter is sweet cream and salt. Unsalted butter is sweet cream and natural flavoring (usually lactic acid). This is the way that butter has been made for hundreds of years.
  • Margarine products are manufactured foods. They didn’t come from a cow. Their labels are significantly longer. And you should read the labels carefully.

So, choosing between margarine products and butter is not as simple as looking at saturated fat content alone. But what if you didn’t have to choose between margarine and butter? What if there were other options to consider?

Once you decide to look beyond margarine and butter you will find lots of healthy options. I discuss my top 4 choices above.

For more details, read the article above.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

Is Dairy Bad For Your Heart?

Is Dairy Right For You? 

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

dairy foodsWe have been told for years that dairy foods are good for us. They are part of the USDA five food groups. In fact, they are part of the dietary recommendations of every government and most health organizations across the world.

And dairy foods are nutritious. They are excellent sources of calcium, potassium, protein, and vitamins A and B12. And if they are fortified, they are also an excellent source of vitamin D. Many health experts consider them essential for healthy bones. So, you might be saying, “Case closed. We should all be eating more dairy foods”.

But, not so fast. Many dairy foods are high in saturated fats. In fact, 65% of the fat in dairy foods is saturated. We have known for years that when saturated fats replace polyunsaturated fats in the diet, LDL cholesterol levels increase. And, as I reported in a previous issue of “Health Tips From the Professor” there is excellent evidence that replacing polyunsaturated fats with saturated fats substantially increases the risk of dying from heart attack, stroke, and other forms of heart disease.

The widely accepted message from these studies is that saturated fats raise LDL cholesterol levels and increases our risk of dying from heart disease. If we accept this message, it poses a dilemma. Dairy foods are nutritious. But they are high in saturated fat. What should we do?

The answer from the American Heart Association and most other health organizations is simple. We should eat low-fat dairy foods.

But this is where it gets really confusing. Dairy foods are composed of much more than saturated fats. And you have probably seen the claims that full fat dairy foods don’t increase the risk of heart disease.

So, what is the truth about full-fat dairy foods and heart health? In this issue of “Health Tips From The Professor” I review three recent studies and the recommendations of the Heart Foundation because they shed light on this question.

Is Dairy Bad For Your Heart?

dairy products and heart disease cheeseBefore I answer this question, I should point out that there are two ways of looking at it.

  • As I said above, the studies proving that saturated fats increase the risk of heart disease, substituted saturated fats for polyunsaturated fats and controlled every other aspect of the diet. That has led the American Heart Association and other organizations to recommend that we eat low-fat dairy foods.
  • However, when most people hear that recommendation, they simply substitute low-fat dairy for full-fat dairy foods without changing any other aspect of their diet or lifestyle. The first two studies were designed to see if that approach was effective for reducing heart disease risk.

The first study (KA Schmidt et al, American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 114: 882-892, 2021) was a randomized controlled trial that compared the effect of low-fat dairy foods and full-fat dairy foods on heart health parameters.

The participants in this study were:

  • Average age = 62
  • 56% male
  • 75% white
  • Average weight = 214 pounds
  • All of them were prediabetic

All participants were told to stick with their usual diets (probably typical American diets) except for the amount and type of dairy foods added to their diet. During the first four weeks they restricted dairy consumption to 3 servings of nonfat dairy/week so they would all be starting with the same amount of dairy consumption. Then they were divided into 3 groups for the 12-week study:

  • Group 1 continued with 3 servings of nonfat dairy/week.
  • Group 2 added 3 servings of low-fat dairy/day to their usual diet.
  • Group 3 added 3 servings of high-fat dairy/day to their usual diet.

At the beginning of the study and again at the end of the 12-week study LDL cholesterol, HDL cholesterol, triglycerides, free fatty acids, and blood pressure were measured. The results were:

  • There was no difference in LDL cholesterol, HDL cholesterol, triglycerides, free fatty acids, or blood pressure in the three groups at the end of 12 weeks.
  • There was no also significant change in LDL cholesterol, HDL cholesterol, triglycerides, free fatty acids, or blood pressure during the study in any of the three groups.

The authors concluded, “A diet rich in full-fat dairy had no effect on fasting lipid profile or blood pressure compared with diets limited in dairy or rich in low-fat dairy. Therefore, dairy fat, when consumed as part of complex whole foods does not adversely affect these classic cardiovascular disease risk factors.”

[Note: The last sentence is key. Remember the “proof” that saturated fats increase LDL levels and increase the risk of heart disease come from studies in which saturated fats were substituted for polyunsaturated fats and every other aspect of the diet was carefully controlled.

In this study, and others like it, the effects of saturated fats are studied in a complex food (dairy) in the presence of an even more complex diet containing many foods that influence the risk of heart disease.]

The second study (J Guo et al, European Journal of Epidemiology 32: 269-287, 2017) was a meta-analysis of Healthy Heart29 studies with 938,465 participants looking at the association of full-fat dairy consumption with the risk of dying from heart disease.

Seven of the 29 studies were conducted in the United States. Of the remaining studies 3 were from Japan and Taiwan, 2 were from Australia, and 17 were from Europe.

The results of the study were:

  • There was no association between full-fat dairy, low-fat dairy, and total dairy consumption and risk of dying from heart disease.

When the results were broken down into individual dairy foods.

  • There was no association between milk consumption and risk of dying from heart disease.
  • Consumption of one serving/day of fermented dairy foods was associated with a 2% decreased risk of dying from heart disease.

The authors concluded, “The current meta-analysis of 29 prospective cohort studies suggested no association of total, high and low-fat dairy and milk with risk of cardiovascular disease. In addition, a possible role of fermented dairy was found in cardiovascular disease prevention, but the result was driven by a single study.” [I would add that this effect, if confirmed by subsequent studies, is extremely small (2%).]

The first two studies do not say that full-fat dairy foods are heart healthy for everyone, as some headlines would have you believe. Instead, these studies show fairly convincingly that simply switching from full-fat to low-fat dairy foods, without changing any other aspect of your diet and lifestyle, is not as effective at decreasing your risk of heart disease as some experts would have you believe.

balance scaleThe third publication (WC Willett and DS Ludwig, New England Journal of Medicine 382: 644-654, 2020) was a review of the effect of dairy foods on our health. One of the authors, Walter C Willett, is one of the top experts in the field. The review covered many topics, but I will focus on the section dealing with the effect of dairy foods on heart health.

This review took a more nuanced look at full-fat dairy foods and examined the effect of substituting full-fat dairy for other protein foods.

The review concludes, “The association of milk with the risk of cardiovascular disease depends on the comparison foods. In most cohort studies [such as the studies described above], no specific comparison was made; by default, the comparison was everything else in the diet – typically large amounts of refined grains, potato products, sugar, and meat.”

The review went on to say that previous studies have shown:

  • “Both full-fat and low-fat dairy foods…were associated with a lower risk [of cardiovascular disease and stroke] than…the same number of servings of red meat but with a higher risk than seen with the same number of servings of fish or nuts.”
  • “Dairy fat…was associated with a higher risk of cardiovascular disease than was polyunsaturated or vegetable fat.”
  • “For persons living in low-income countries where diets are very high in starch, moderate intake of dairy foods may reduce cardiovascular disease by providing nutritional value and reducing glycemic load [the amount of easily digestible carbohydrate in the diet].”

Is Dairy Right For You?

dairy products and heart disease questionsNow I am ready to answer the question posed at the beginning of this article, “Is dairy bad for your heart?” The answer is, “It depends”.

  • As described above, the effect of dairy on heart health depends on our overall diet. It also depends on our lifestyle, our weight, and our health.
  • In addition, clinical studies report averages, and none of us are average. We all have unique diets, lifestyles, health status, and genetic makeup.

So, what does this mean for you? Perhaps it is best summed up by the recommendations of Australia’s Heart Foundation which take health status, lifestyle, and genetic differences into account:

  • A heart healthy diet can include dairy, but it is not essential [with careful planning and/or supplementation you can get your calcium and protein elsewhere].
  • Milk, yogurt, and cheese are considered neutral for heart health, meaning they neither increase nor decrease the risk of heart disease for the average person. However, the recommendations vary depending on health status, genetics, and lifestyle:
    • Low-fat milk, yogurt, and cheese are recommended for people with heart disease or high cholesterol because the fat in dairy foods can raise cholesterol more for these people. [Note: If cholesterol is elevated, it usually means that individual has a hard time regulating blood cholesterol levels because of obesity, genetics, or pre-existing disease. For these individuals, diets high in saturated fat are more likely to increase LDL cholesterol and risk of heart disease.]
    • Full-fat milk, yogurt, and cheese can be part of a heart healthy diet for healthy people provided most of the fat in the diet comes from fish, nuts, seeds, and healthy oils. [Note: Overall diet is important.]
  • Choosing unflavored milk, yogurt, and cheese helps limit the amount of sugar in your diet.
  • Ice cream, cream, and dairy desserts should be eaten only sometimes and in small amounts because they have more sugar and fat, and less protein, vitamins, and minerals than other dairy foods.
  • Butter raises LDL cholesterol levels, especially in people who already have elevated cholesterol.
    • There is no evidence that butter can be part of a heart healthy diet, so you should consider healthier options such as olive oil, avocado, nut butters, and spreads made with healthier oils, such as olive oil.

The Bottom Line

We have been told for years that dairy foods are good for us. They are part of the USDA five food groups. In fact, they are part of the dietary recommendations of every government and most health organizations across the world.

However, dairy foods have been controversial in recent years. Some experts claim that only low-fat dairy products can be heart healthy. Others claim that full-fat dairy foods are just as healthy as low-fat dairy foods.

I shared three recent publications and dietary recommendations from The Heart Foundation that shed light on these controversies.

The first study found that full-fat dairy foods did not increase LDL cholesterol, triglycerides, and other heart disease risk factors.

The second study was a meta-analysis of 29 clinical studies with almost one million people. It found that full-fat dairy foods did not increase the risk of dying from heart disease.

“Case closed”, you might say. However, these studies do not say that full-fat dairy foods are heart healthy for everyone, as some headlines would have you believe. Instead, these studies show fairly convincingly that simply switching from full-fat to low-fat dairy foods, without changing any other aspect of your diet and lifestyle, is not as effective at decreasing your risk of heart disease as some experts would have you believe.

Moreover, these studies do not account for the effect of overall diet, lifestyle, health status, and genetics on the risk of heart disease.

That is why I included the third study in my review. It took the overall diet into account and concluded the effect of full-fat dairy foods on heart disease risk depends on the overall diet.

  • For some diets full-fat dairy increases heart disease risk.
  • For other diets full-fat dairy has no effect on heart disease risk.
  • And for some diets full-fat dairy may even decrease heart disease risk.

Finally, I included recommendations of the Australian Heart Foundation because they included the effect of health status, lifestyle, and genetics in their recommendations.

For more details on the findings of the third study and the recommendations of the Heart Foundation, read the article above.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.

Health Tips From The Professor