For many years (since the 1940’s in fact) fat has received a bad rap. It’s been linked with an increased risk of heart disease and strokes, with raising blood levels of harmful low-density lipoproteins and so on. However, modern research is increasingly finding that healthy fats, like those found in dairy products, are really not the bad guys they’ve been made out to be. Quite the opposite in fact. Many of these ‘dangerous’ fats could actually do you more good than harm, and improve your cardiovascular health. Not to mention the fact that a number of studies now have found that a high intake of full-fat dairy products is more often associated with a lower body mass index. The conclusion? There is no proof that eating full fat dairy increases BMI and plenty of evidence to suggest the opposite. This is the ‘full fat dairy paradox’.
Debunking Full Fat Dairy Myths
One study of note was conducted over a period of 22 years on 2,900+ adults who were 65 years of age and older at the start of the study. Their blood plasma levels of the dairy related fatty acids pentadecanoic, heptadecanoic, and trans-palmitoleic were measured at the start, and again 6 years and 13 years later. During the study, the majority of the participants died, as is to be expected with this age group. However, whilst 833 of them did die from heart disease, it wasn’t necessarily those with the highest levels of dairy-related fatty acids in their blood. In fact, researchers found it was the opposite – those with high levels of these fatty acids in their blood were the LEAST likely to die from heart disease.
In addition to this, and in relation to deaths from strokes, the researchers found that those with high levels of the fatty acid heptadecanoic were 42% less likely to pass away from a stroke. This would appear to indicate that this particular fatty acid provides some protection against stroke.
Studies Continue To Back Up The Full Fat Dairy Paradox
Other studies and reviews of studies have come to similar conclusions about the apparent health risks of dairy fat. In one review of 16 studies into consumption of full fat dairy products, the reviewers found that 11 of the studies showed a correlation between eating full fat dairy and a low BMI. In other words, the more full fat dairy the study subjects ate, the lower their BMI. This led them to conclude that “The observational evidence does not support the hypothesis that dairy fat or high-fat dairy foods contribute to obesity or cardiometabolic risk, and suggests that high-fat dairy consumption within typical dietary patterns is inversely associated with obesity risk.”
In two studies done with middle-aged women in which some ate low fat dairy whilst the others ate full fat, the results were similar. Those who ate the full fat products were less inclined to put on weight than those who at the low fat dairy products.
Why the dichotomy? Well, the evidence that dairy fat contains ‘things’ that contribute to improved cardiometabolic health is stacking up rapidly, although what those ‘things’ are requires a lot more investigation. Then there’s the fact that many low-fat dairy products contain additives to make them taste good. Additives like sugar for instance that IS proven to be bad for us, and a contributor to so many of the health problems ironically attributed to full fat dairy. Like weight gain…. Therefore it’s not surprising that replacing these with full fat NO sugar dairy products is linked to lower incidences of sugar related disorders like insulin resistance and diabetes!
Full Fat Dairy Has Many Other Health Benefits
Full fat dairy contains a lot of saturated fats. Saturated fats are a vital component in:
- Cell membranes – they’re almost 50% saturated fats, and it’s these fats that help the cells retain their shape
- Brain tissue – current research indicates that medium chain fatty acids like those found in dairy could help improve brain health. They could also improve cognitive performance in people with mild Alzheimer’s
- Bile production, vitamin D metabolism, and some hormone production
Full fat dairy is also full of CLA or conjugated Linoleic acid. A number of studies have shown that whilst CLA doesn’t necessarily help you lose weight, it can help prevent weight gain.
It doesn’t have many omega 6 fatty acids. Omega 6’s are essential in a healthy diet but they’re also pro-inflammatory. The modern western diet has far too many of them. Most vegetable oils for example are particularly high in omega 6’s. As these oils are popular for cooking, our intake can creep up without us realising it. The ideal ratio of omega 3 to omega 6 in our diet should be 1:4. Not the 1:10 or more it often is!
Full Fat Dairy Contains A Beneficial Trans Fat!
We mentioned trans-palmitoleic acid earlier – it’s the most common trans fat in dairy. It’s a form of palmitoleic acid, also called an omega 7 fatty acid. Palmitoleic acid is the second most common fatty acid in our diet. However, food sources are relatively few and far between. We manufacture most of our palmitoleic acid ourselves through metabolism of the more common palmitic acid. Palmitic acid is a long-chain saturated fatty acid. It’s found in foods like palm oil, which is where its name comes from. During metabolism, we de-saturate it to create the monounsaturated palmitoleic acid.
Dietary palmitoleic acid come in 2 forms. There is a plant form found in foods like macadamia nuts, some species of blue-green algae and sea buckthorn oil. This type of palmitoleic acid, like the one we produce ourselves, has a cis configuration of hydrogen atoms.
The other type of palmitoleic acid is produced by the digestive process in ruminants (and also to a small degree in humans) and ends up in full fat dairy and meat products. This type of palmitoleic acid has a trans configuration of hydrogen atoms, and is sometimes called trans-palmitoleic. We’ve known about trans-palmitoleic for a long time. It’s one of the reasons meat and full fat dairy products have been linked with cardiovascular disease for so long. We’ve just assumed that all trans fats are automatically bad for us.
Not All Trans Fats Are Necessarily Bad
That modern research we mentioned earlier though is uncovering more and more evidence that these naturally produced trans fats may not be as harmful as we’ve been led to believe. Along with other fatty acids in dairy fat, they’ve been linked with lower levels of diabetes, insulin resistance, atherogenic dyslipidemia, cardiovascular disease et al. It’s the artificial ones we need to watch!
We all know that artificial trans fats are a big no no in a healthy diet. Or in any type of diet come to that. Why? Artificial trans fats are proven to increase blood levels of harmful low density lipoproteins (LDLs). At the same time they decrease levels of beneficial high density lipoproteins (HDLs). LDLs are harmful because they’re small enough to get through blood vessel walls. HDLs, being bigger, can’t do this so readily.
What does this mean for HEALTHY dairy food lovers?
Well, it doesn’t mean that you can go out and indulge your love of cheese-topped pizzas and other junk food that contains dairy. But you can probably buy that bottle of full-fat milk instead of the low-fat one. Or add a dollop of cream to your coffee without feeling an inordinate amount of guilt! Likewise, you can begin to enjoy cheese again without feeling like every mouthful is stocking up your adipose tissues. Ditto for the full fat yoghurts. In fact, including full fat dairy as part of a healthy balanced diet is definitely the way to go. It’s the pairing it up with unhealthy food choices that’s the problem.
Unfortunately, 80 odd years of indoctrination is hard to overcome! This is why you’ll still find many government health authorities continuing to ‘warn’ about the dangers of eating saturated fats and recommending low-fat dairy products.
As with all things always speak to your doctor before making any dietary changes. Especially if you have a health condition that could be exacerbated by eating full fat dairy.