Currently, most doctors recommend dairy intake to be moderate to low, because excessive consumption was thought to increase risk of death. The high saturated fat levels in dairy products were associated with a higher risk of heart disease and cancer. But the reality might not be so clear: a recent study found dairy products might actually have a positive effect in our health. In fact, they could even help us live longer. Here’s what we know about it.
Given its high fat content, current nutritional guidelines don’t recommend to consume dairy products on a daily basis . However, even though doctors have been advising to limit dairy consumption for decades, scientific research on the subject is still non-conclusive. According to a recent study, frequent milk consumption was associated with a 4% higher chance of coronary heart disease . In spite of this, there’s contradicting evidence about other dairy products. In fact, consumption of fermented dairy products like yogurt and cheese were linked to 3% lower mortality rate by cardiac disease.
This study grouped results from 17 different long-term surveys in American adults, following them for 15 years . While milk consumption negatively affected cardiovascular risk, fermented dairy and general dairy consumption proved beneficial in the long term.
Why would results be so different? Simply put, not all dairy products are created equal, and some have added benefits.
It might seem confusing to hear that milk might heighten your cardiovascular risk, while cheese and yogurt could lower it. But it all comes down to how these items are made. What makes cheese and yogurt different from milk is fermentation.
Fermented products are key to keeping a healthy gut microbiome, and as we’ve already covered, gut microbiota is essential to human health. Fermented dairy products are rich in lactic acid bacteria, which are the main contributor to gut health.
Yogurt and cheese provide healthy microbes, yeast and bacteria that replenish your gut’s population. In turn, the more diverse gut flora you have, the lower your risk of chronic health conditions, auto immune diseases, mental health issues and even cancer.
In contrast, traditional milk has a lot of antibiotics, fewer microorganisms and is relatively high in saturated fat. The antibiotics will slowly lower your gut diversity, and the higher lipid intake can cause unwanted weight gain. None of these will help lengthen your lifespan.
Fermented dairy products have shown a strong correlation with better quality of life, lower risk of chronic conditions and lower mortality rate. In fact, a 2012 study showed kefir -a yogurt-like product- inhibited the reproduction of mammary cancer cells in the lab . While results are still in the early stages, it’s evident adding these kinds of dairy items to your diet can bring many benefits for long-term health.
As we’ve already mentioned, not all dairy is created the same. Of course, you should strive to have a balance of every food group, but here are some general guidelines to help with your dairy consumption:
· Choose organic dairy items, if possible, from animals that haven’t been treated with antibiotics.
· Avoid non-fat options. These are usually higher in salt, sugar and additives to heighten palatability. Choose low-fat or regular, and use portion control.
· Look out for fermented products like yogurt, dry cheeses and kefir.
Of course, these results are still preliminary and we need further studies to change current dietary guidelines. However, it might be worth it to reconsider such a limited consumption of whole-fat dairy, particularly fermented products.
1. European society of cardiology. Current advice to limit dairy intake should be reconsidered. Available here.
2. Beena Divya, J., Kulangara Varsha, K., Madhavan Nampoothiri, K., Ismail, B., & Pandey, A. (2012). Probiotic fermented foods for health benefits. Engineering in Life Sciences, 12(4), 377-390.
3. Harvard health. Ask the doctor: Why should I limit my dairy intake to one to two servings a day? Available here.