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Dairy: Good for heart, bad for waistline?

Dairy products get mixed press. They can be high in saturated fat, yet they are good nutrient providers. So it is interesting to see that while a recent Harvard study links bad eating and lifestyle habits of Costa Ricans to a significantly elevated risk of heart attack, another study by Brown University concludes that dairy consumption itself is not a contributing factor.

Julie Godfrey

Julie Godfrey

Sounds like good news, but what about all that saturated fat? The Brown researchers hypothesize that dairy products contain nutrients – possibly calcium and conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), which have heart-protective properties. But before you reach for that extra scoop of ice cream, dollop of natilla (sour cream) or slice of Gouda, be aware that those in the top 20 percent of dairy consumption apparently lost some of this protection. 

Overall, dairy products are good sources of protein, calcium, potassium and vitamins A, B2 and D, as well as tryptophan (the precursor for serotonin, a neurotransmitter that helps regulate mood, appetite and sleep patterns) and CLA, which has been associated with weight management. The unadulterated full-fat versions can be more nutrient-dense, but butter, natilla, cream and hard cheeses should be eaten sparingly. You may not have a heart attack, but you will get fat if you consistently overdo the calories.

The generally accepted daily intake for adults is one to two servings. One serving equals approximately 8 ounces of milk, 6 ounces of yogurt or 1 to 2 ounces of cheese. Hence, a few cups of coffee taken with milk plus a cheese salad sandwich will easily get you through your allowance.

Natural yogurt with probiotics is a very sensible and delicious option. Use it in smoothies, on muesli or as a topping for fresh fruit or baked potatoes. Go easy on cheeses, especially mature cheeses. However, grating a small amount of strong cheese over a dish of pasta can pack a powerful flavor punch without overloading on the fat. Be sparing with cream and butter, and don’t fall into the trap of swapping a scraping of butter for a generous layer of low-fat spread. Lastly, monitor your milk intake and aim to stay within the guidelines of one to two servings of dairy products a day.

Be aware that milk products are not appropriate for everyone. Some people are intolerant or allergic to the milk protein casein. Check this out if you suffer from eczema or itchy skin, or respiratory or gastrointestinal problems. Others are intolerant to lactose, a natural sugar found in milk. For both conditions, you need to avoid dairy products and start reading ingredient lists, as many foods contain milk derivatives. Luckily for those with lactose intolerance, some lactose-free products are available, and natural live yogurt is often acceptable. Goat’s milk products are also often tolerated in small amounts.

Even though the study did not find a relationship between high dairy consumption and heart attack risk, we still advise you to make sensible choices within this food group so that you can look after your waistline as well as your heart.

Sources: Science Daily (, Medill Reports Chicago (, American Jour-nal of Clinical Nutrition (, Harvard School of Public Health (, Costa Rican National Chamber of Milk Producers (

Julie Godfrey, B.Sc. (Hons), is a nutritional therapy practitioner and full member of the British Association of Applied Nutrition and Nutritional Therapy (BANT). For more information, see or email


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