Dairy and the heart

Full-fat dairy seems to have made a comeback but a review of the latest evidence still supports that reduced-fat dairy is the best choice for your heart.

Is milk good for your heart?
While dairy foods may be neutral in relation to heart disease, eating less dairy fat in favour of heart-healthy unsaturated sources of fat or healthier foods is associated with reduced risk.

Is dairy (milk, yoghurt, cheese) healthy?

Yes. Evidence into dairy and the heart suggests dairy doesn't appear to be associated with an adverse effect on heart health. Dairy is a nutritious food that can be part of a heart-healthy dietary pattern. Milk, yoghurt and cheese contain protein, and vitamins and minerals such as riboflavin, vitamins A and B12, calcium, zinc, and phosphorous. 

Is full fat milk healthy?

While dairy foods may not be harmful to heart health, a small number of studies have shown a reduction in cardiovascular risk when dairy or dairy fat is replaced with options such as unsaturated fats or unrefined grains.

Ultimately what’s important to reduce your risk of heart disease, is to focus on a heart-healthy way of eating. If you're eating this way, and your diet is relatively low in total saturated fat (or dairy only makes up a small part of your diet), then the type of milk (whether it be full fat, reduced fat, or fat free) you use is probably of less importance.

There is ample evidence that sources of fat that are part of a heart-healthy eating pattern include nuts, oily fish, avocado, olives and most plant oils. These and other plant fats should be the predominant sources of fat in the diet. They are best eaten within a dietary pattern that emphasises vegetables and fruit, with unrefined grains, legumes, and, if eaten, non-processed lean meats, poultry and oily fish, and reduced fat yoghurt, milk and cheese.

What are the Heart Foundation’s recommendations?

Based on current evidence into dairy and the heart, the Heart Foundation’s position statement on dairy recommends that New Zealanders continue to choose mostly reduced-fat dairy options as part of a heart-healthy eating pattern.

Reduced-fat dairy has been linked with reduced risk for some, but not all, cardiovascular risk factors: 

• Low-fat dairy may be associated with reduced risk of hypertension over the longer term. 
• For people aiming to reduce their LDL cholesterol levels, reducing dairy fat may help make a small improvement. 
• Low-fat dairy or yoghurt may be associated with a small reduction in risk of type 2 diabetes. 
• The evidence does not suggest a beneficial effect of dairy on insulin sensitivity or inflammation, nor does it suggest any benefit of reduced-fat dairy over full-fat for weight loss.

Find out more in our Q&As What are healthy foods to eat?