Health Benefits of Whole & Reduced-Fat Dairy Foods
The dairy community is very proud of the important nutrients like protein, calcium, and vitamins that are delivered in cheese, milk, and yogurt. These nutrients positively impact health but a growing body of scientific evidence shows the combination of nutrients and components in foods as a whole may have a more compelling impact on health than the individual parts, which poses an opportunity for the cheese industry.
For decades, dietary recommendations have focused on limiting high-fat intake because it leads to obesity, heart disease, diabetes and various other chronic diseases. As a result, many Americans adopted low-fat dietary patterns, but chronic disease rates are still high. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that six in 10 adults have at least one chronic disease, and many chronic diseases can be caused by poor nutrition.
Dairy foods positively impact health
It’s no secret that dairy foods, such as cheese, contain saturated fat, but the tides are turning on how fat, and specifically dairy fat, is viewed. Medical and nutrition experts are beginning to understand that not all fat is equal, and certain foods containing saturated fat — including cheese — may not be as directly linked to cardiovascular disease risk as previously thought, according to a study published in the Journal of the American Heart Association in 2013.
Another 2013 report in Proceedings of the Nutrition Society suggests that looking at saturated fat consumption on its own might be an overly simplistic metric for diet quality. Different food sources of fat can contribute additional nutrients and unique compounds to the diet that may impact disease risk. In short, studying individual nutrients may not account for a food’s total effect.
Over the past decade, science has demonstrated that cheese, milk, and yogurt consumption, regardless of fat content, is not associated with an increased risk for cardiovascular and other chronic diseases. One example of this is a 2018 study published in the The Lancet (a medical journal). This study followed more than 136,000 adults across 21 countries, and it linked high consumption of dairy with a reduced risk of major cardiovascular disease and stroke.
Additionally, the Scientific Report of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee linked consumption of milk and other dairy foods to a wide range of health benefits. These health benefits include well-studied associations like controlling blood pressure and improving bone health to newer associations like reducing the risk of diabetes and heart disease.
These findings add to the growing body of evidence that regular dairy food consumption — at all fat levels — is not on its own associated with an increased risk for cardiovascular and other chronic diseases. It is critical to look at the overall nutrient quality of dairy foods like milk and cheese and how those nutrients interact to impact health.
Embracing dairy foods in dietary guidance
With strong consensus from a growing number of studies, evidence supports the need to reaffirm the role of whole and reduced-fat dairy foods in healthy eating patterns. Since plant-based diets and other recommendations limiting dairy and milk consumption grow more popular, it is critical to make sure that future nutrition guidance continues to embrace research that supports cheese and dairy foods as an important part of healthy eating patterns that promote optimal health and reduce the risk of chronic disease.
Recommendations that do not acknowledge the unique package of nutrients and health-promoting benefits cheese and other dairy foods provide as part of healthy eating patterns could result in missed nutritional opportunities. With rates of chronic disease rising, ensuring that nutrition guidance embraces credible scientific research will help foster optimal health and ensure greater access to nutritious foods in communities where people live, learn, work, and play.
Members of the cheese industry can play an important role in educating their community about the health benefits of milk and dairy foods. To empower the dairy community with credible scientific research, Dairy Council of California’s free DairyUp mobile app provides easily accessible information about milk and dairy products and the journey from farm to table. The app offers information in six categories: nutrients of milk and dairy foods; health; safety; animal welfare; environment and sustainability; and types of milk and dairy foods.
Dairy councils will continue teaching children and families about the importance of lifelong healthy eating habits, and milk and dairy foods will be the foundation of these efforts.