Two recent studies suggest that consumption of full-fat dairy products is correlated with a lower risk of developing “central obesity,” or weight around the middle of the body, where it tends to be most dangerous health-wise. A Swedish study of 1782 men, published in the Scandinavian Journal of Primary Health Care, finds that consumption of full-fat dairy products is correlated with a lower risk of excessive abdominal weight gain, while a separate analysis of 16 studies published by the European Journal of Nutrition echoes this link — or, rather, lack thereof — between full-fat products and weight gain.
Harvard School of Public Health Nutritionist Walter Willett, who interpreted the studies in a recent interview with New Scientist magazine, says the findings shouldn't be too surprising as many studies have not supported the idea that fat in the diet is specifically related to greater fat in people’s bodies.
“The idea that all fats are bad still persists in the minds of many people, despite layers of evidence that this is not true,” Willett says. “If anything, low-fat/high-carbohydrate diets seem to be related to greater long-term weight gain.”
Dairy took a double-whammy in the 1950s and ’60s, Willett explains. Researchers showed that saturated fat intake was associated with increased blood cholesterol levels. Because dairy products are relatively high in saturated fat content (about 65 percent), they were deemed harmful. Then researchers showed that areas with high consumption of saturated fat, largely from dairy fat, had much higher rates of heart disease than the Mediterranean countries, where dairy product consumption is lower. Hence, the idea of dairy being bad for our hearts took shape.
And part of the reason this idea has held sway for so long is that it’s not entirely wrong, he says. The key to understanding dairy fat’s role in the average American’s diet is to look at what replaces it when it is cut out.
“We consciously or unconsciously replace a large reduction in calories with something else,” he says.
If the answer is sugar, people are almost certainly bound to gain weight, whereas full-fat dairy products likely provide more satiety. It’s also possible that some of the fatty acids in milk products have an additional (positive) effect on weight, he adds.
Willett himself believes one to two servings of dairy a day provides adequate calcium, and when consumed at this level, they can be full-fat, he says.
His final takeaway?
“The picture of dairy foods and health is complicated and deserves further study.”