• Nutrition & health

Is dairy fat good or bad for you?

By Mindy Wigzell

Mindy is a Senior Nutritionist for Anchor. She holds a BSc (Hons) Nutrition and Dietetics from King’s College, London.

  • Nutrition & health

Dairy products are recommended by experts as a part of a healthy diet as they provide essential nutrients for good health.

They naturally contain fats, including saturated fat which has been  suggested to increase the risk of heart disease. As a result the advice for decades has been to limit saturated fat from all food sources and preferentially choose low-fat dairy products. However increasing evidence suggests the bad reputation of full-fat dairy may be unjustified.

"Dairy fats do offer some benefits. For example some dairy products help to carry fat-soluble vitamins, including vitamin A – an essential nutrient that is important for vision, immune function and cell growth."
Why is fat important?

Fat plays an important role in your diet by providing energy and essential building blocks for cells in the body. It also carries and helps absorb the fat soluble vitamins A, D, E and K. 

Fats include a large variety of lipid components, and are often broadly divided into unsaturated fats and saturated fats. Unsaturated fats have been linked to a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, while saturated fats have been suggested to increase risk. Although more recently this stance has been highly debated among experts with some challenging the link between saturated fat and cardiovascular disease.

Did you know dairy is a natural source of fat?

Milk naturally contains around 4% fat, up to around one third of which is unsaturated fat and the rest is saturated. The fat content varies between dairy foods, with some products such as cream, butter and cheese being more concentrated sources of dairy fat.  

Dairy fats do offer some benefits. For example some dairy products help to carry fat-soluble vitamins, including vitamin A – an essential nutrient that is important for vision, immune function and cell growth.  

For many years, full-fat milk and high-fat dairy foods such as cheese have been seen as something that needs to be minimised due to its saturated fat content. But the view that full-fat dairy is bad for the heart has been challenged by international experts, with some calling for dietary guidelines to no longer focus on low-fat dairy foods.

How does full-fat dairy impact your heart?

Growing evidence suggests dairy consumption, including full-fat dairy, does not increase the risk of cardiovascular disease in the general population, despite its saturated fat content. Even cheese, which is high in fat, is not associated with a higher risk of heart disease or stroke. 

Some experts now believe that it was too simplistic to suggest that full-fat dairy is bad for cardiovascular health because it contains saturated fat. It is increasingly acknowledged that the overall food matrix, including other nutrients, influences how a food affects cardiovascular health. Milk and dairy products provide a whole package of nutrients, and the effect of dairy foods on cardiovascular health would be influenced by the entirety of nutrients present rather than simply by its fat content. So rather than looking at a single nutrient, it’s important to look at the effect of a whole food. And it’s now becoming clear that dairy foods such as milk, cheese and yoghurt do not appear to negatively impact cardiovascular health. It’s important to remember though that people with a history of heart disease should consult with their health professional for dietary advice about their specific needs.

Butter is okay for you– but in moderation

Some high fat dairy foods such as butter and cream are not recommended as one of your two to three serves of dairy a day as they are high in fat while providing little dairy nutrition. They are used in cooking and baking or as a delicious bread spread, providing a unique flavour that is difficult to replicate with products that are often used as substitutes.  

Butter in particular has been shunned by dietary guidelines due to its saturated fat content. But recent evidence suggested that up to 14g of butter per day (about 1 tablespoon) was not associated with a higher risk of disease, suggesting a small amount can be part of a healthy balanced diet for the general population.  A balanced diet includes mainly fruit and vegetables, as well as wholegrains, dairy and other protein sources, and also sources of unsaturated fats such as plant oils, nuts and avocadoes as they support heart health.  

Butter – natural and delicious

Butter is made from all natural ingredients: fresh cream separated from cow’s milk and sometimes salt. That’s it. This makes butter a great choice for those wanting a natural product. New Zealand butter is renowned for its golden colour. This is because New Zealand cows graze on fresh pastures, which increases the beta-carotene content in milk fat compared to cows fed predominantly on grain.  

In conclusion, evidence suggests that for most of us dairy products including full-fat varieties can be part of a heart healthy diet. Dairy products such as milk, cheese and yoghurt are packed with essential nutrients and consuming two to three serves of dairy a day supports good health. Even butter can be consumed in a healthy balanced diet, just make sure you do so in moderation.