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Consuming dairy fat may not increase heart disease risk, study finds

Dairy fat may not increase heart disease risk, according to a new study. File Photo by Mandritoiu/Shutterstock
Dairy fat may not increase heart disease risk, according to a new study. File Photo by Mandritoiu/Shutterstock

Sept. 21 (UPI) -- People with diets high in dairy fat are at lower risk for heart disease than those who consume less fat from milk-based foods, a study published Tuesday by the journal PLOS Medicine found.

Irrespective of age, lifestyle, dietary habits and other diseases, people with the highest levels of a fatty acid found in dairy foods in their blood -- a sign of high intake of dairy fats -- were less likely to develop heart disease than those with low dairy fat diets, the data showed.

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In addition, higher intakes of dairy fat were not associated with an increased risk for death, the researchers said.

Consumption of dairy-based foods is on the rise globally, as dairy is a common ingredient in a variety of foods, from milk, ice cream, yogurt and cheeses to puddings, custards, some cereals and even prescription drugs -- such as birth control pills -- and vitamin supplements, they said.

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"Some dietary guidelines continue to suggest consumers choose low-fat dairy products," study co-author Matti Marklund said in a press release.

However, "others have moved away from that advice, instead suggesting dairy can be part of a healthy diet," said Marklund, a senior research fellow at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore.

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A healthier approach might be to select certain dairy foods, such as yogurt, while avoiding others, including butter and "sweetened dairy products that are loaded with added sugar," he said.

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Several recent studies have found no links between dairy intake and heart disease risk.

However, at least historically, dairy fat was included among fats to avoid in many dietary guidelines, though many have more recently placed the focus on saturated fats.

For this study, Marklund and his colleagues analyzed dairy consumption and heart disease risk in nearly 4,200 Swedish adults and combined their findings with those from 17 similar studies in other countries.

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Dairy and dairy product consumption in Sweden is among the highest worldwide, Marklund said.

The researchers followed the Swedish participants for an average of 16 years to see how many had heart attacks, strokes and other serious heart health-related events, and how many died from any cause during this time.

Dairy intake was assessed by checking blood samples for levels of a fatty acid called 15:0, which is found in foods and beverages containing dairy fat.

Over the course of the study period, there were 578 heart disease "events" and 616 deaths among the Swedish participants.

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Those with the highest levels of 15:0 in their blood, however, had a 25% lower risk for heart disease compared with those who had the lowest levels.

In the studies conducted in other countries, including the United States, in nearly 43,000 people, higher levels of 15:0 and another fatty acid linked with dairy, 17:0, reduced heart disease risk by up to 12%, according to the researchers.

Consuming some dairy foods, especially fermented products, has been associated with benefits for the heart.

"Increasing evidence suggests that the health impact of dairy foods may be more dependent on the type -- such as cheese, yogurt, milk, and butter -- rather than the fat content," study co-author Kathy Trieu said in a press release.

"It is important to remember that although dairy foods can be rich in saturated fat, they are also rich in many other nutrients and can be a part of a healthy diet," said Trieu, a researcher at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

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