Diet do-over: Whole-fat milk and cheese may actually be great for your health

SOPHIA ANTIPOLIS, France — Whole-fat dairy products such as milk, cheese, cream, and yogurt should be part of a healthy diet in order to reduce the risk of premature death by nearly a third, new research contends. This advice counters the popular belief that limiting dairy improves health, with researchers now suggesting that these whole-fat products actually protect against cardiovascular disease – the world’s leading cause of death.

The new study also notes that whole grains and unprocessed red meat like beef, lamb, and pork can be considered optional, as researchers say they have little to no impact on our health. However, there should be a greater focus on consuming more nuts, fish, and dairy instead of focusing solely on diet and low-fat foods.

The study, which involved nearly 150,000 people worldwide tracked over an average of 10 years, found that those who regularly consumed whole-fat dairy were 30 percent less likely to develop cardiovascular disease or die prematurely.

The ideal healthy diet, referred to as PURE, consists of three to four weekly servings of legumes, seven of nuts, two of fish, and 14 of mainly full-fat dairy – excluding butter or whipped cream. It also includes two to three servings of fruit and vegetables per day. Like unprocessed red meat, whole grains had little effect on health outcomes.

“Low-fat foods have taken center stage with the public, food industry and policymakers, with nutrition labels focused on reducing fat and saturated fat,” says study author Dr. Andrew Mente of the Population Health Research Institute at McMaster University.

“Our findings suggest that the priority should be increasing protective foods such as nuts (often avoided as too energy dense), fish and dairy, rather than restricting dairy (especially whole-fat) to very low amounts. Our results show that up to two servings a day of dairy, mainly whole-fat, can be included in a healthy diet. This is in keeping with modern nutrition science showing that dairy, particularly whole-fat, may protect against high blood pressure and metabolic syndrome.”

Dad pouring milk into a bowl of breakfast cereal for his daughter
(© Prostock-studio –

The study assigns a score of 1 or 0 for intake above or below the average for the six food groups.

“Participants in the top 50% of the population – an achievable level – on each of the six food components attained the maximum diet score of six,” Dr. Mente explains in a media release.

Traditional nutritional advice has labeled fatty dairy foods as contributors to heart disease. However, this latest analysis adds to a growing body of evidence highlighting their health benefits. Most cheeses, including brie, stilton, cheddar, Lancashire, and double Gloucester, which contain between 20 and 40 grams of fat per 100 grams, have been associated with high cholesterol. Any food with more than 17.5g of fat per 100g is considered high in fat.

Dr. Mente and his team compared rates of mortality, heart attack, stroke, and cardiovascular disease among 147,642 individuals from 21 countries, taking into account variables such as age, sex, waist-to-hip ratio, education level, income, urban or rural location, physical activity, smoking status, diabetes, use of statins or high blood pressure medications, and total energy intake.

The average diet score was 2.95. Over an average follow-up period of 9.3 years, there were 15,707 deaths and 40,764 heart attacks and strokes. Participants with the healthiest diet score of five or more were 30 percent less likely to die during the study period than those who scored 1 or less. They were also 19, 18, and 14 percent less likely to suffer a stroke, develop cardiovascular disease, or have a heart attack.

These findings were further supported by five independent studies, which included a total of 96,955 patients with cardiovascular disease from 70 countries.

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“This was by far the most diverse study of nutrition and health outcomes in the world and the only one with sufficient representation from high-, middle- and low-income countries. The connection between the PURE diet and health outcomes was found in generally healthy people, patients with CVD, patients with diabetes, and across economies,” Dr. Mente continues.

“The associations were strongest in areas with the poorest quality diet, including South Asia, China and Africa, where calorie intake was low and dominated by refined carbohydrates,” adds Professor Salim Yusuf, senior author and principal investigator of PURE.

According to the CDC, cardiovascular disease was responsible for nearly 700,000 deaths in the United States in 2021 alone. It claims around 18 million lives globally each year.

“This suggests that a large proportion of deaths and CVD in adults around the world may be due to undernutrition, that is, low intakes of energy and protective foods, rather than overnutrition. This challenges current beliefs,” Prof. Yusuf says.

The findings back previous research by Norwegian scientists that found eating more naturally high-fat foods while limiting carbohydrates consumed does not cause an increase in harmful cholesterol.

“The new results in PURE, in combination with prior reports, call for a re-evaluation of unrelenting guidelines to avoid whole-fat dairy products,” says Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University in an accompanying editorial.

“Investigations such as the one by Mente and colleagues remind us of the continuing and devastating rise in diet-related chronic diseases globally, and of the power of protective foods to help address these burdens. It is time for national nutrition guidelines, private sector innovations, government tax policy and agricultural incentives, food procurement policies, labelling and other regulatory priorities, and food-based healthcare interventions to catch up to the science. Millions of lives depend on it.”

The study published is in the European Heart Journal.

South West News Service writer Mark Waghorn contributed to this report.

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