Overall survival advantage to consuming dairy products

A small but valuable reduction in risk of heart disease from increased consumption of dairy products

Dairy products are an important source of many key nutrients including high-quality protein, energy and many essential minerals and vitamins. In response to considerable scientific research on the nutritional value of milk, dietary guidelines around the world have recommended daily consumption of dairy products for the overall health of the population.

Unfortunately, for more than half a century, the concept of eating healthy has become synonymous with avoiding dietary fat and cholesterol, especially saturated fat. On a population basis, this has resulted in a diet low in saturated fat being at the heart of nutritional advice in many countries for lowering plasma cholesterol and reducing heart disease risk. In the case of dairy products, there has been a general perception that a food containing saturated fat is unlikely to be beneficial to health. Recent estimates indicate that approximately 30% of our dietary intake of saturated fat comes from dairy products with cheese being the major source. 

Peter Elwood, honorary professor of epidemiology at Cardiff University in the United Kingdom and, his colleagues recently published two reviews (here and here) that examine the associations between milk and dairy products and health and survival. These results provide the best available evidence that those who consume greater quantities of milk are at no greater risk of heart disease than those who consume little. Indeed there appears to be a small but significant reduction in risk of heart disease from increased consumption.

Overall, the available evidence does not support the concept that consumption of dairy products increases the risk of heart disease. In fact, linking the benefits of milk consumption with deaths from key chronic diseases (including heart disease) led Elwood and colleagues to conclude that high milk consumers probably have an “overall survival advantage”. 

It is unfortunate that due to a focus on the small rise in blood cholesterol with milk drinking, the debate on milk has never achieved a reasonable balance in the evaluation of risks and benefits. Clearly, broad generalizations about fats can be misleading and often inaccurate. We will continue to look at these reviews and others in upcoming articles, further discuss milk fat in particular, and challenge current misconceptions regarding milk consumption and human health.

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