IS BUTTER BACK? NO, BUT FULL-FAT DAIRY IS!

Do you shy away from drinking milk and yogurt because you don’t like the low-fat/fat-free stuff but also avoid cheese because of the saturated fat?

Well, have a slice of cheese and read on.  And while you’re at it, scoop some full-fat yogurt on some fruit, too.  Your cardiologist probably won’t cringe, either, and may even give you a high-5.  That’s because several recent studies, both randomized clinical trials, (considered the “gold standard” of research), and observational studies that look at tens of thousands of people and are less rigorous, suggest that full-fat dairy foods — but not butter — may be better for us than we thought.

Dietary guidelines have traditionally advised us to reduce our consumption of saturated fat, and full-fat dairy foods are a significant source of it.  These newer studies are suggesting that saturated fat isn’t all the same, shouldn’t all be under one big umbrella.  Dairy fat, in particular, may behave differently than other saturated fats.

Cheese vs. butter

The fat in these two foods have similar levels of saturated and unsaturated fat.  Makes sense, as they both contain dairy fat from milk.  Butter is simply isolated from the milk, whereas cheese has the fat as well as protein and even a small amount of carbohydrate, depending on how long it was cultured.   Since the fats are of similar type, you could also reason that similar amounts of saturated fat from butter and cheese would behave the same way in the body.

That doesn’t seem to be the case, at least not in this study that reviewed randomized controlled trials, — the gold standard of research – to compare the effects of cheese and butter on blood lipids.  Here’s what they concluded from the studies they reviewed:

  • Compared with butter, cheese reduced both LDL-cholesterol (the bad stuff) by 6.5% and HDL-cholesterol (the good stuff) by 3.9%. Note that the more hazardous LDL dropped much more than the desirable HDL.
  • Cheese intake had no effect on triglycerides.
  • When compared to tofu or reduced-fat cheese, full-fat cheese increased LDL cholesterol.

Foods vs. nutrients

Just as not all saturated fat is the same, it may be a mistake to see all dairy fat as the same, even though it all has the same origin and composition.  Why? Because we’re learning that there’s more to food than just its nutrients.  (You may think, “duh” but in the nutrition world, it’s always been just about nutrients!)

In this 2016 synopsis of several symposia that looked at 131 studies, the research did not show any increased risk for cardiovascular disease from the consumption of full-fat dairy foods.  Moreover, for weight gain, there was actually an inverse relationship with weight gain and obesity risk, meaning that higher consumption of full-fat dairy foods was associated with less obesity and weight gain.

The thought is that when dairy fat exists in foods, it’s bound to a complex matrix that includes milk proteins (chiefly casein and whey) as well as minerals and even bacterial cultures, in the case of cheese and yogurt.  These along with the compounds of digestion, may reduce the absorption of some of the cholesterol and/or saturated fats.

I actually like this type of research because it helps me work with patients who couldn’t care less about the biochemistry of it all, they just want to know how to eat a healthy diet that also tastes good.

Cut-to-the-Chase take-aways:

  • Overall, good news here about cheese and full-fat dairy foods.
  • Keep eating the fatty fish and olive oil!  But it’s OK to replace butter and fattier cuts of meat with cheese and full-fat dairy.
  • IF you like fat-free yogurt and you’re used to 1% or fat-free milk, keep at it!
  • If your diet is short of calcium and vitamin D because you don’t care for low-fat or fat-free diary, and including more full-fat dairy foods would help correct that
  • Spend wisely: Full-fat dairy foods have more calories than lower-fat versions, so be sure you balance calories elsewhere in your diet.
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