Is it time to go back to full fat dairy?

Is it time to go back to full fat dairy?

Is it time to go back to full fat dairy?

With sales of whole milk climbing and TikTokers clearing the shelves of the white stuff – should we be ditching the oat milk and opting for full-fat dairy instead? Dietician Laura Tilt looks at the research.

The British public’s relationship with fat is well documented – since the 80s, public health campaigns have encouraged the average Brit to cut back on butter, cheese and other high-fat foods, owing to a link between saturated fat and heart disease.

Then there’s the concern about consuming excess calories, as the number of people carrying unhealthy body fat – linked to chronic disease – rises. After all, gram for gram, fat provides twice the energy of carbs or protein, which has led to lower-fat foods being hailed as a smarter choice. The messaging delivered results: semi-skimmed milk is the overwhelming favourite in the UK, accounting for around 60% of all milk sales, and fat-free remains the bestselling yoghurt category.

Fat or non-fat?

But in recent times, the spotlight has shone more favourably on fat. Low-fat products began to be demonised for being high in sugar and sweeteners to replace the taste that fat provides. And yet, a few years ago, there was a buzz after researchers published data showing that eating around three servings of dairy a day was linked with a lower risk of heart disease, with full-fat dairy seeming to have the strongest benefit. Say what?

Published in The Lancet, the study involved over 130,000 adults, between the ages of 35 and 70, from 21 countries. At the start of the study, researchers collected data about participants diets and sorted them into four groups according to their dairy consumption – no dairy, less than one serving per day, one or two servings per day and over two servings
per day – with whole and low-fat choices noted.

Participants without existing heart disease were then monitored for an average of around nine years, during which time the researchers tracked how many people experienced a cardiovascular event (we’re talking heart attack, heart failure or stroke) and how many died as a result. After adjusting for variables like smoking, exercise and red meat intake, the researchers found that those with higher dairy intakes (two or more servings per day) had a lower risk of cardiovascular disease and mortality than those eating no dairy. The benefit was stronger in those consuming full-fat milk and yoghurt.

Making the swap

So does this mean the switch from low-fat to full-fat is a no-brainer? In a word, no. This was an observational study – good for showing patterns, but not so great for proving cause and effect. Though full-fat dairy was linked with the lowest risk, it’s not clear why – some suggest dairy products are more than the sum of their fat content, and the beneficial effects may be down to other components, such as vitamin K and calcium. It’s also key to note that, in this study, the protective effects were driven by the consumption of milk and yoghurt only – no significant association was seen with cheese or butter.

Like most studies, this one isn’t free from flaws – dietary data was self-reported and only collected at one time point, so it’s not clear if people’s in takes changed over time. The follow-up period was also quite short if we’re looking at heart disease developing in younger adults, and most of the countries studied were low-to-middle income, so whether the findings can be applied in the UK, where fat consumption, in general, is already too high, is questionable.

At best, we can say – based on a wider body of research – that consuming two or three portions a day of dairy foods (a portion being a glass of milk, a small pot of yoghurt or a matchbox-sized piece of cheese) may protect heart health. As for low-fat milk and yoghurt, if your main goal is to maintain a healthy weight, they can prove helpful choices. Milk moustache it is, then.