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When it comes to dairy products, do you tend to buy high-fat or low-fat products? For many people, opting for low-fat options may seem like the healthier choice.
In fact, a 2020 survey in the United States found that out of 1,000 people surveyed, one in three tried low-fat or low-fat foods or drinks, with dairy being the most common food category for low-fat options. . But are low-fat milk, cheese, yogurt and butter really better for us?
Many governments and public health bodies recommend dairy products as a key part of a healthy diet (although it’s perfectly possible to be healthy without them, as are many people around the world). And many people opt for low-fat options as part of that.
Low-fat milk is made by removing or skimming the cream from milk. So you can get whole or whole milk (3.5% fat), semi-skimmed or low-fat milk (1.8% fat), or full-fat milk (0.1%-0.3% fat).
The same process can be used to make low-fat cheese and yogurt. However, removing the fat can affect how the cheese dries and how flavors develop as it ages.
Most relevant dietary guidelines encourage the consumption of low-fat dairy products, except for very young children. But a recent review of available research found that children who consumed full-fat dairy products were healthier and leaner than those who consumed reduced-fat versions.
It could be that families who tend to have a history of living with diet-related health problems or higher body weight may be more likely to eat low-fat products. An alternative view is that full-fat dairy products might be more filling and help regulate appetite, meaning people eat less overall.
However, these observations in children have also been observed in adults.
Explain the science
It’s not just that low-fat dairy products may not be better for our health. There is growing evidence that some of the fatty acids found in milk fats may actually reduce our risk of developing heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
In fact, it appears that higher intakes of fermented dairy products such as unsweetened full-fat yogurt and some cheeses may be associated with lower risks of heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
When it comes to the recommendation to eat reduced-fat dairy products, Australian guidelines appear to be based on a mathematical decision of how calories add up to meet the recommended calorie intake for an average adult.
It is unclear whether this is the same for guidelines in other countries, as detailed evidence elsewhere has not been similarly published. But it may be that other recommendations for using low-fat dairy products are based more on math than science.
It’s also worth noting that the potential health benefits linked to dairy products don’t extend to butter and perhaps not even milk, but are largely linked to your intake of yogurt and some types of cheese.
There is also a myth that low-fat milk and cheese can lead to weight gain, but this is false. It appears to be based on historical agricultural practices that used skim milk left over from cream production to fatten piglets.
Low fat versus full fat
So, given the minimal evidence, why do so many healthy eating guidelines, including in the UK, US and Australia, recommend choosing low-fat or reduced-fat versions of dairy products?
Research has found that higher intakes of saturated fatty acids are linked to an increased risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes and dementia.
But this research looks at saturated fatty acids in general and not specifically the saturated fatty acids found in dairy products, which have been shown to potentially benefit our health in both children and adults. This is thought to have to do with how these foods are fermented.
So these recommendations may come as part of suggestions to limit overall fat intake more broadly, rather than because full-fat dairy is bad.
Switching from whole milk to semi-skimmed milk in tea (up to five cups a day) is likely to save the average person less than 50 kcal a day. This means that even when considering calories and energy, the effect of fat reduction is minimal.
So if you consume dairy products, chances are you don’t need to worry too much about the fat content. This is especially true when it comes to unsweetened yogurt and cheese, which when eaten in their full-fat form appear to have potential health benefits.
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