Whole milk for a healthy heart? Don’t raise that glass just yet

Just in time for the national caloric binge that is the winter holiday season, the federal government is expected to release the new Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the every-five-years report that tells us what we should eat.

Fresh vegetables and fruits will certainly be on the list. But after years of exile, full-fat whole milk and other whole-milk dairy products may make a return.

A growing body of research suggests that saturated fat in dairy, specifically in milk, may not be as harmful to overall health as previously thought, according to an article on the research by the Washington Post. Citing studies of thousands of people over 10 years, the Post said those studies showed people who drank more milk fat had lower rates of heart disease.

Got confusion?

The government has been warning Americans off of saturated fat since the 1980s, and the new guidelines will not declare saturated fats to be suddenly risk-free. Nevertheless, the science surrounding milk fat in particular is nuanced and complex.

‘You can’t ignore the research’

The current draft of the Dietary Guidelines does not embrace full-fat dairy, not even a little bit.

“The overall body of evidence examined by the 2015 (Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee) identifies that a healthy dietary pattern is higher in vegetables, fruits, whole grains, low- or non-fat dairy, seafood, legumes, and nuts; moderate in alcohol (among adults); lower in red and processed meats and low in sugar-sweetened foods and drinks and refined grains,” according to a report released by the committee in February.

So how did we get from there to here? To a point where after decades of shunning it, we might be able to pour whole milk on our cereal again without guilt?

A partial answer to those questions is that not all saturated fat is created equal, said Desiree Wanders, an assistant professor of nutrition and dietary researcher at Georgia State University. Milk contains nutrients that many other high saturated fats don’t, such as phosphorous, calcium and potassium, which have been shown to help combat high-blood pressure, Wanders said. In addition, milk fat has a form of fatty acids that could be “cardio-protective.”

“You can’t ignore the research,” Wanders said. “Most of the research coming out in the last 20 years says high saturated fat doesn’t necessarily promote heart disease. Dairy appears to have enough benefits to outweigh the negative effects of saturated fat. It’s not the saturated fat but the food it’s found in. Dairy is protective. Processed meat is not.”

Jamie Cooper, associate professor of food and nutrition at the University of Georgia, has examined the role of dietary fat and its effect on metabolism, inflammation and how full a person feels after eating certain foods. She agrees that there are huge differences in saturated fats, but she cautions people against interpreting the research to mean it’s OK to introduce a little more of it into the daily diet.

“Maybe saturated fats aren’t quite as bad as they were made out to be, but there are still a lot of detrimental effects of saturated fats,” Cooper said. “Dairy and dairy products have other beneficial nutrients in them. So if you’re going to have saturated fat, you might as well get them from dairy rather than deep-fried foods.”

Should adults drink milk at all?

But as an example of how divided the medical community can be when looking at the same studies and the same findings, take Dr. Jennifer Rooke, an assistant professor of community health and preventive medicine at the Morehouse School of Medicine. Rooke said she works with patients to remove all saturated fats from their diets, especially those from dairy products. She sees the cholesterol in saturated fats as the real culprit in heart disease.

“Saturated fat by itself does not cause heart problems, but the issue is that it’s impossible to separate it from cholesterol in food,” Rooke said.

As a result, Rooke advises her patients to avoid milk and milk products all together and to adopt a mostly plant-based diet. She avoids the terms vegetarian or vegan because they represent ideologies, she said, not necessarily good nutrition. The key is replacing the saturated fats with unsaturated fats found in foods like avocados, walnuts and almonds.

Ironically, even though Wanders and Rooke disagree on the role of dairy fat in the diet, they both agree on this: neither thinks people need any kind of milk past adolescence. But adults should continue to get calcium from food sources such as leafy, dark green vegetables and fish such as sardines, including the bones.

‘You have lost your credibility’

When it comes to nutrition guidelines, the public tends to appreciate clear and definitive statements, with little room for ambiguity.

“The public doesn’t like mixed messages and the guidelines lose credibility and people stop trying to follow them,” said Sandra Dunbar, a cardiovascular researcher at Emory University School of Nursing.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell, whose departments jointly issue the Dietary Guidelines, ran into that sentiment during House Agriculture Committee hearings last week.

“We’ve had these guidelines that have pushed people away from eggs and butter and milk, and then they come back and say, ‘Well, we were wrong,’” said Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minnesota. “From my constituents, most of them don’t believe this stuff anymore. You have lost your credibility with a lot of people and they are just flat out ignoring this stuff.”

Vilsack sought a middle ground.

“All of this is evolving,” he said. “You’re not going to ever have something that is just going to be fact about this, because science evolves, we learn more, we understand more, and I would hope that we would be flexible enough to appreciate that.”

Diet is only one piece of the puzzle

Dunbar, the Emory researcher, says the Dietary Guidelines, no matter how definitive, can only take you so far.

“Diet is only one part of what influences cardiovascular diseases,” she said. “Not smoking, getting exercise, maintaining a healthy weight, all of those are key in determining whether saturated fat will promote heart disease. The question isn’t should you have whole milk or not.”

Still confused? Dunbar offers a fairly easy solution.

“When you get conflicting information, ask your health provider, ‘What is right for me based on my health history?’” she said.

Calorie and fat content in an eight-ounce (one cup) glass of milk. Values may vary depending on the brand.

Whole Milk

  • 150 calories
  • 70 calories from fat
  • 8 grams total fat
  • 5 grams saturated fat

2 percent milk

  • 130 calories
  • 45 calories from fat
  • 5 grams total fat
  • 3 grams saturated fat

1 percent milk

  • 110 calories
  • 20 calories from fat
  • 2.5 grams total fat
  • 1.5 grams saturated fat

Skim milk

  • 90 calories
  • 0 calories from fat
  • 0 grams total fat
  • 0 grams saturated fat

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