Health messaging constantly tells us to dodge dairy fat. Dietary guidelines even recommend that we start eating reduced-fat dairy from the age of two, but new research has questioned that common piece of advice.
A study from Edith Cowan University has found that there may not be any nutritional advantage to low-fat dairy products when compared to full-fat options.
The research published in January in the journal Nutrients even found that choosing full-fat dairy may be just as beneficial for heart health. Researchers examined 860 WA teenagers aged from their early to late adolescence to discover whether opting for reduced-fat makes any difference.
We have long been recommending people eat low-fat dairy on the assumption that because it has less calories and less saturated fat it is healthier for you.
“We have long been recommending people eat low-fat dairy on the assumption that because it has less calories and less saturated fat it is healthier for you, but there was very little out there in terms of good evidence that this is the case,” says study author Dr Therese O’Sullivan from the ECY’s School of Medical and Health Science.
For the study, Dr O’Sullivan and her team pulled data from the Western Australian Pregnancy Cohort (Raine) Study, following women and their children at regular intervals. In this instance, they pooled data of the children - from 14-year and 17-year follow-ups - which included a food frequency questionnaire, based on the Australian food composition database.
The research found both low-fat and regular dairy had a similar impact on heart health. “Low and regular fat dairy intakes both displayed similar association with cardiometabolic risk factors,” the study authors write.
What’s more, in teenage boys, both types of dairy were associated with a reduction in diastolic blood pressure. “We were able to show that for teenage boys, full-fat dairy consumption was associated with a slightly better cholesterol profile than low-fat dairy. Intake of both low-fat and regular fat dairy products were associated with better blood pressure in boys.”
Given that it has less calories per serve, it was assumed that low-fat dairy would help children and teenagers maintain a healthy weight, but we found that neither low-fat nor regular fat products increased obesity.
Proponents of low-fat dairy may argue that skim milk has fewer kilojoules, meaning those who consume reduced fat will have a healthier weight. However, this study found no link between obesity and the type of dairy eaten in the teenagers in this study.
“Given that it has less calories per serve, it was assumed that low-fat dairy would help children and teenagers maintain a healthy weight, but we found that neither low-fat nor regular fat products increased obesity,” says Dr O’Sullivan.
“This could be because children and teenagers are actually quite good at regulating their food intake, so eating full-fat dairy makes them feel more full, potentially reducing their consumption of other foods, but this is something that requires further research,” says Dr O’Sullivan.
While this study particularly examined young people, O’Sullivan believes there may be a similar pattern in adults. “[Based on] my study results in particular, we can’t generalise because adolescence is a unique population, they’re growing and they’ve got hormonal changes,” she tells SBS. ”But our results match the majority of other evidence that has been done in adults previously that have shown that intake of full-fat dairy has not been associated with any increased metabolic or cardiovascular risks.”
So does this mean we can ignore health recommendations and consume as much saturated fat as we please? Not quite. “The evidence seems to suggest that if you can take some saturated fats out and put in good fat, like omega-3 fat, that’s beneficial,” O’Sullivan explains. “If people are taking out saturated fat and putting in more processed carbohydrates, that is likely to be detrimental.”
The next stage of O’Sullivan’s research is to conduct a dietary-based trial examining the effect of low-fat and regular dairy products over three months. She is looking for Perth-based children aged two to six to take part later this year.