Are dairy fats the new health food?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA“Diabetes here I come.”

This rather judgmental message turned up on a Starbuck’s Grande White Mocha with Classic sugar syrup recently.  The customer was offended.  Starbucks apologized.  Perhaps one of the baristas thought a 470 calorie sugary drink would pave the way to diabetes.  But if that drink was made with whole milk, perhaps not.

Strange but true.  Results from two different studies reported this past week suggest that consumption of whole fat dairy foods is linked to lower risk for diabetes and less obesity. The obesity study followed over 18,000 normal weight women aged 45+.  Data on food intake, weight and health parameters was collected yearly for an average of 11 years per person.  Results: intake of high fat dairy foods was linked to less weight gain compared to intake of low fat versions.  The more high fat dairy eaten the lower the obesity/weight gain risk.

In fact this isn’t a new concept.  Other studies have shown similar results in different populations, including a study that linked low fat milk to weight gain in children.  Makes you wonder about the wisdom (or lack thereof) of the National School Lunch Program’s outright ban on whole milk in school lunches at a time when childhood obesity is an epidemic.  Back in the nutritional Dark Ages (mid-20th Century, for example), the only milk available at schools was whole milk.  There was no obesity epidemic back then.  Hmmmm….

The diabetes-dairy study included 3333 non-diabetic adults aged 30-75 were followed for an average of more than 15 years.  The researchers didn’t rely on food recalls; they measured blood levels of fats that are markers for high fat dairy consumption, a far more accurate way to validate what people were eating.  The higher the levels of those fats, the lower the risk for developing diabetes.

What could be going on here?

Keep in mind, neither of these studies was looking for an explanation of why high fat dairy is linked to less obesity and less diabetes.  The data simply showed the link.  Speculation centers on what foods people substitute when they cut fat out of their diets — they add sugars and carbohydrates.  Those may be the real culprits.  It’s not that dairy fat prevents problems; it’s that the sugars and carbs cause problems.  It’s not a far-fetched explanation.

Another possibility: in fact dairy fats do have some as-yet-unidentified metabolic effect that prevents weight gain and diabetes.

Another possibility: people who stick to high fat dairy foods, despite all the bad press and Food Police nagging, make other different lifestyle choices that prevent weight gain and lower diabetes risk.  Perhaps they’re less hungry and don’t overeat.  Perhaps they don’t care for snacks or junk food.

One researcher speculated that eating more cheese, a well known high fat dairy food, might encourage a population of gut microbes that protect against weight gain.  Again, not so far-fetched as you might think, since there’s plenty of research linking certain gut microbe populations to obesity.

What about cholesterol?

There will certainly be critics who warn that high fat dairy foods could — theoretically — lead to higher LDL cholesterol and risk for heart disease.  In fact, that was the assumption that started the whole low fat dairy craze decades ago.  Has it helped?  In that time, obesity and diabetes have skyrocketed.  The WHO now warns of a global diabetes catastrophe.  The latest version of the US Dietary Guidelines has quietly backed off on the scary warnings about limiting fat intake, although the emphasis is still on vegetable fats.

Whole milk was gaining popularity recently, even before these studies were published, although milk consumption in general is significantly lower than 10-20 years ago.  Aside from whole milk, the other main sources of dairy fat are:

  • Cheese
  • Whole milk yogurt
  • Cream and whipped cream
  • Half and half
  • Butter and foods made with butter

Ice cream is also high fat, but it’s high sugar, too.

What about that Starbuck’s drink and the snarky message?  When it comes to diabetes, perhaps the better choice is a plain cup of coffee or an Americano with half and half, or a plain unsweetened latte with whole milk.  A mocha made with skim milk and low fat whipped topping may not be so healthy after all.

So are dairy fats the new health food?  Singling out one food or one nutrient to blame for all our problems, or believe is the solution to our problems hasn’t ever worked well, so why repeat that mistake?  In the context of a healthy diet, high fat dairy foods probably have a place in moderation.

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