It’s time to take a big-picture view on full-fat dairy, says Niki Bezzant.
Do you do dairy? It’s a fairly common question these days, with more of us going dairy-free than ever, and non-dairy milks expanding in range and popularity.
I don’t mind a spot of plant milk, but I’m a dairy lover at heart. So I was interested to see the recent update to heart-healthy eating guidelines from the Australian Heart Foundation.
It’s now advised Aussies that full-fat milk, cheese and yoghurt are okay for healthy people. After looking at the evidence, the foundation’s scientists said there wasn’t enough evidence to recommend full-fat dairy over reduced-fat dairy, or vice versa. They concluded: “while the evidence was mixed, [full fat] dairy was found to have a neutral effect, in that it doesn’t increase or decrease your risks for heart disease or stroke”.
Given this, they say, “we believe there is not enough evidence to support a restriction on full-fat milk, yoghurt and cheese for a healthy person, as they also provide healthy nutrients like calcium”.
Our Heart Foundation here in NZ hasn’t changed its guidelines on dairy in quite the same way to date. But they say they’re mostly aligned in their advice, in that milk, cheese and yoghurt are nutritious foods.
That said, though, they still recommend low-fat dairy as a way of reducing saturated fat intake. “There is evidence that replacing dairy fat with healthier sources of fat (e.g. olive oil, avocado, oily fish, and nuts, seeds), is associated with reduced risk of heart disease”, they say. Since many Kiwis eat more saturated fat than recommended, choosing reduced-fat dairy is one useful way to reduce your saturated fat intake, particularly if you regularly eat dairy.
This has the potential to be confusing, and you’d be forgiven for thinking, gosh, can’t all why these experts just agree?
Well they mostly do, as it turns out. What might help, perhaps, is knowing that both the NZ and Australian Heart Foundations – in common with all the nutrition experts I know – emphasise a big-picture view when it comes to a heart-healthy diet.
It’s about foods, not nutrients, they say, and the whole diet is what’s important, not individual elements within it. We don’t just eat dairy foods, we eat a whole lot of different foods. When we pull back and look at the big picture, the detail of the individual foods becomes less important.
Both the NZ and Australian organisations agree on the fundamentals of a heart-healthy diet: eating mainly plant-based foods (vegetables, fruit, legumes, whole grains, nuts and seeds) and fewer processed foods. They’re the same as what we accept as a great diet for general health.
If we get those fundamentals right, the dairy we choose to eat is probably less important. Full-fat milk or cheese in the context of a diet full of colourful plants is not likely to be a big problem if you’re in generally good health.
If you have high cholesterol, though, or have heart disease, low-fat dairy is still recommended for you, both in Australia and NZ.
And hold the knife, butter lovers: butter, cream, ice cream and dairy-based desserts are not on the menu for any of us; the evidence doesn’t apply to these foods and they’re still only in the treats category.
It’s really easy to get fixated on one thing – one food or nutrient – in the diet. I’ve lost count of the times people have asked me which I think is worse: fat or sugar? The trouble is that when we do that, we lose sight of the big picture, and that can cause unintended consequences.
Remember when everyone was eating low-fat everything 20 years ago? That had the unintended consequence of creating a whole new category of unhealthy, highly-processed low-fat foods. Concentrating on low-sugar or sugar-free foods shows signs of heading the same way: a whole lot of “no refined sugar” foods bearing dodgy marketing claims that are no healthier than other foods.
So when it comes to dairy we should take a big-picture view. If we choose to eat it, we should eat a variety of minimally-processed dairy: milk, cheese and yoghurt, and we should choose the foods that suit us best, depending on our own circumstances: our health; our lifestyle; our budget and our taste. And, of course, the rest of our diet.