Eating Cheese and Butter Every Day Linked to Living Longer

Eating three servings of dairy products a day could lower the risk of heart disease, a study suggests. 

After analyzing the diets of more than 130,000 people in almost two dozen countries, scientists found that eating the equivalent of one serving (244 grams, or 8.6 ounces) of full-fat milk or yogurt, a 15 gram (0.6 ounce) slice of cheese or a teaspoon of butter could benefit health. 

The findings, published in The Lancet, contradict dietary recommendations that advise against consuming full-fat dairy products. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s dietary guidelines for 2015 to 2020, for instance, suggest eating fat-free or low-fat dairy in its key recommendations. 

cheese-food-melt-stock Eating one slice of cheese a day has been linked to lower rates of cardiovascular disease and mortality, in a study published in The Lancet. Getty Images

Mahshid Dehghan, an investigator at the Nutrition Epidemiology program at the Population Health Research Institute of McMaster University and lead author of the study, told Newsweek: "PURE is the first multination study from low, middle and high income countries that assessed association between dairy intake and risk of clinical outcomes. We are providing new evidence and suggesting that moderate consumption of dairy might be beneficial specifically in low and middle income countries where dairy intake is low."

Researchers at McMaster University evaluated information on 136,384 volunteers between the age of 35 to 70 from the Prospective Urban Rural Epidemiological (PURE) study. At the start of the study, the participants filled out questionnaires about their diets. Researchers revisited the participants nine years later. In that time, 6,796 participants had died, and 5,855 had had heart attacks or other cardiovascular events.

The volunteers were divided into four categories: those who ate more than two servings of dairy per day; one to two servings; one serviing; and no dairy at all. Most people fell into the one serving group.

Participants in North America and Europe ate the most dairy at 368 grams (about 13 ounces) a day, or more than four servings. In contrast, respondents in Southeast Asia ate as little as 37 grams (about 0.25 ounces) per day.

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Those who consumed the most whole-fat dairy, 3.2 servings per day on average, had lower mortality rates at 3.3 percent from the baseline and a 3.7 percent risk of developing cardiovascular disease. But those who ate less than 0.5 servings of dairy had a total mortality rate of 44.4 percent, and a risk of cardiovascular disease at 5 percent.

Because the study was observational, it has its limits. The scientists could only infer that eating dairy might prevent heart disease or lower a person’s risk of early death, and other explanations could account for the results. Further research is needed to answer what made these patterns surface from the data.

Still, Dehghan explained current recommendations on low-fat dairy products focus on the presumed harms of saturated fatty acids on one cardiovascular risk marker (LDL cholesterol), as well as concerns about higher calories in higher fat foods. 

"Dairy products contain a range of potentially beneficial compounds including specific amino acids, medium-chain and odd-chain saturated fats, milk fat globule phospholipids, unsaturated and branched-chain fats, natural trans fats, vitamin K1/K2, and calcium, and can further be fermented or contain probiotics, many of which may also affect health outcomes," she said. The potential health benefits of dairy products should therefore not be disregarded because of a single risk marker of fatty acids, she argued.

Still, the authors said that current attitudes toward dairy products that stem from the belief that saturated fats are wholly harmful to cardiovascular health may need to be revisited. The potential benefits of compounds found in dairy products, such as certain amino acids, vitamins K1 and K2, calcium, magnesium, potassium and some probiotics warrant further investigation.

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Emer Delaney, a qualified dietitian and British Dietetic Association spokesperson, told Newsweek: “The results are really interesting as they support the use of full-fat dairy products in cardiovascular disease as opposed to low fat or fat-free, which current guidelines advise."

But, she said, "much more research is needed before any major guidelines or recommendations are changed."

Commenting on dairy consumption generally, she said: "It's not advisable for people to reduce their intake of lower-fat options if they are concerned. Similarly, people shouldn't take the results to excess and eat as much dairy as they like."

"Full-fat products are still high in calories and, like everything else, can cause weight gain if eaten to excess. Eating two to three portions of calcium-rich foods a day is the recommendation for a healthy adult. Also this study looked at cardiovascular disease only and readers need to remember that."

Ian Givens, a professor of food-chain nutrition at Reading University, who was not involved in the study, told Newsweek: “The study will add to the suggestion that dietary guidelines should consider foods as well as nutrients. It also adds weight to the evidence that saturated fats from dairy [probably apart from butter] are not associated with increased cardiovascular disease risk, unlike some other sources."

This article has been updated with comment from Dr. Mahshid Dehghan.

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