Full-Fat Milk Could Cut Risk of Stroke, Heart Attack, Study Says

Consuming dairy products such as milk and cheese could cut the risk of heart disease and stroke, according to a study that challenged the commonly held belief that dairy is harmful.

Marcia Otto, lead author of the study and assistant professor of epidemiology, human genetics and environmental sciences at UTHealth School of Public Health, said in a statement: "Our findings not only support, but also significantly strengthen, the growing body of evidence which suggests that dairy fat, contrary to popular belief, does not increase risk of heart disease or overall mortality in older adults."

One fatty acid present in dairy was actually found to potentially lower the risk of death from cardiovascular disease, particularly stroke, she said.

Dairy products were not found to harm cardiovascular health, according to a recent study. Getty Images

The findings come as milk sales in the U.S. are expected to drop by 11 percent between 2015 and 2020, according to trends forecaster Mintel. At the same time, milk alternatives, such as soy and almond, have grown in popularity, with sales spiking by more than 61 percent in the past five years.

"Consumers have been exposed to so much different and conflicting information about diet, particularly in relation to fats," said Otto. "It's therefore important to have robust studies, so people can make more balanced and informed choices based on scientific fact rather than hearsay."

To arrive at their conclusion, the researchers evaluated 3,000 adults 65 years old and older. At the start of the study in 1992, the levels of three different fatty acids found in dairy products were measured in their blood, and again six and 13 years later.

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The team found none of the fatty acids were linked to a higher risk of dying. And one was linked to a lower risk of dying from cardiovascular disease. In addition, people with higher levels of fatty acids, which the researchers believe may have stemmed from their consumption of dairy products, had a 42 percent lower risk of dying from stroke.

Otto argued current dietary guidance on whole fat dairy foods should be revisited as many are a rich source of nutrients, such as calcium and potassium.

"These are essential for health not only during childhood but throughout life, particularly also in later years when undernourishment and conditions like osteoporosis are more common," she said.

The research published in, American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, was funded by the National Institutes of Health.

The study stands in contrast to the most recent Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which recommend the consumption of fat-free or low-fat dairy products, such as milk, cheese, yogurt and fortified soy drinks. Otto, however, highlighted that low-fat dairy products can be deceiving in their health promises, as they can contain high levels of added sugars, which have previously been linked to cardiovascular disease and obesity.

Busting myths about which foods cause cardiovascular problems is particularly important considering that heart disease is the leading cause of death in the U.S., claiming the lives of 610,000 people each year. Stroke is the fifth biggest killer, with 795,000 people in the U.S. experiencing them each year.

A 2017 study also found consuming full-fat dairy products does not appear to raise the risk of heart attack or stroke.

The research, published in the European Journal of Epidemiology, involved a meta-analysis of 29 studies and indicated products such as cheese, milk and yogurt had a "neutral" effect on health.