Milk: It Does Your Heart Good

Although dairy foods have long been associated with heart disease because of their high content of saturated fat, a new study from Sweden suggests that eating dairy foods may actually help maintain heart health by lowering high blood pressure and cholesterol levels. To understand the intake of dairy foods and the risk they may pose to heart disease, researchers from Uppsala University in Sweden measured the blood levels of two biomarkers of milk fat-pentadecanoic acid and heptadecanoic acid-in 444 heart attack patients and 556 healthy volunteers in a control group. The study, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, found that people with the highest levels of the biomarkers were at lower risk of having a heart attack. For women the risk was lowered by 26 percent and for men the risk was reduced by nine percent.

"The exact mechanism behind these associations cannot be deduced from the present study, but the range of bioactive components present in the food matrix of milk products as well as associated lifestyle factors may all have contributed to the observed associations," the researchers wrote in the study. The study was partly funded by the National Dairy Council/Dairy Management, Inc., a trade group of the U.S. dairy industry.

While dairy foods contain many important vitamins and minerals that are good for your heart, such as calcium, vitamin D and potassium, the American Heart Association (AHA) recommends lowering your intake of saturated fat from dairy foods to maintain good blood cholesterol levels and reduce your risk of heart attack and stroke. But that doesn't mean you have to stop eating dairy foods or sacrifice satisfying your taste buds. The AHA suggests substituting low-fat (1 percent) milk or fat-free milk in recipes instead of the full-fat varieties and using low-fat cottage cheese, part-skim milk mozzarella or ricotta and other low-fat cheeses.

Other suggestions by the AHA include:

  • Reducing saturated fat in meat and poultry
  • Eating seafood at least twice a week
  • Lowering your consumption of meat
  • Cooking fresh vegetables with low-fat and low-salt
  • Substituting egg whites for whole eggs
  • Increasing the amount of whole grains in your diet
  • Reducing the amount of sodium. High levels of sodium can lead to high blood pressure, raising your risk for stroke, heart disease and kidney disease. Aim for less than 1,500 mg of sodium per day