Eating cheese may be associated with a lower risk of death — and scientists are zeroing in on why it might be a better choice than milk
- Studies of more than 660,000 people suggest that not all dairy is created equal when it comes to effects on our health.
- People who eat cheese tend to live longer, but drinking a lot of milk can lead to slightly higher rates of coronary heart disease and death.
- Other new studies suggest there might be something about the way fat and protein is arranged in products like cheese and yogurt that makes them better for our hearts than milk or butter.
Eating cheese and yogurt may be linked to a longer life, researchers at the European Society of Cardiology Congress 2018 reported on Tuesday.
The team, led by cholesterol expert Maciej Banach of the Medical University of Lodz in Poland, compiled data from studies of 636,726 people on a long-term scale of 15 years. Their results suggested that not all dairy is created equal when it comes to your heart.
Drinking milk appears to up risk of coronary heart disease by 4%, according to the study, but consuming yogurt and cheese does not seem linked with negative health outcomes.
The finding aligns with what other researchers around the world are discovering about dairy: Some types may not be bad for us after all. In fact, we've known for a while that people who eat more fermented dairy products like cheese and yogurt are at a lower risk for developing heart disease and Type-2 diabetes.
"Public health officials should revise the guidelines on dairy consumption," Banach said in a release.
Changing the rules about dairy
Many heart and health experts are increasingly suggesting that overall, the fat in dairy may not be as bad for us as once thought, even though much of it is saturated fat, which is considered one of the heart-clogging kinds.
A roundup of 29 different studies published last year showed no connection between dairy intake and heart disease or death of any kind. Another study published in July followed more than 2,900 American adults for more than two decades and found that people who consumed full-fat dairy had no greater risk of dying from any cause than anyone else.
Banach and his colleagues have now gone even further, and found that dairy isn't just harmless, it might even be helpful. When the researchers dove into six years of data on 24,474 middle-aged Americans, they determined that eating dairy was associated with a 2% reduced risk of death overall. Consumption of cheese was associated with the best outcome: an 8% lower total mortality risk.
Why milk may be dangerous
But a big implication of the new finding is that it may not be ideal to lump all types of dairy into one dietary category, since milk seems to have a different impact on our hearts than yogurt or cheese.
Milk "appears to increase the risk of coronary heart disease," the researchers said in their release, while cheese (and yogurt, to a lesser extent) does the opposite.
The difference between dairy products that are more and less healthy may have to do with the way protein and fat molecules are arranged in cheeses and unprocessed cream. The protective shield for fat molecules — the milk-fat globule membrane — is better preserved in foods like cheese and buttermilk. The same can't be said of butter, which drains off that membrane. And in the homogenised milk we buy in the grocery store, the globules have been shrunk.
Still, a word of caution is in order: Banach said it's hard to tease out exactly which kind of dairy is the best for our bodies based on the observational studies he looked at.
"It is indeed very difficult to confirm the causality, because it is almost impossible that some participants might intake only the given dairy product without the other ones," he told Business Insider in an email. He added that a "well-designed, randomized, controlled study" is needed.
Other researchers are already taking up that charge. One such study conducted recently in Ireland found that overweight adults who ate full-fat cheddar cheese reduced their cholesterol more than peers eating reduced-fat cheese or butter.
So while cheese and yogurt can be a beneficial part of your diet, it may be best to keep milk and butter intake in check, at least until we know more.
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