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Quinn on Nutrition: Are dairy fats different?

November 7, 2016

Just in time to fuel your holiday cheese platter conversations, here are some interesting observations from the current issue of Today’s Dietitian, a magazine for nutrition professionals. 

In an article entitled "The Truth about Dairy Fat," registered dietitian Carrie Dennett explores evidence that higher fat dairy foods (such as cheese) may not necessarily be totally bad for us. Notice the word may. Here’s why: 

Most (about 70 percent) of the fat in most cheese is the saturated type. And there is plenty of evidence that a high intake of saturated fat raises the cholesterol levels in our blood. There is also good evidence that we can reduce our risk for having a heart attack if we can lower the LDL fraction of cholesterol in our blood. However, scientists have yet to find the direct link to prove that saturated fat causes heart attacks. (I know, it’s blurry.)

This may or may not mean open season on party cheese balls. But it adds to some growing evidence that high fat dairy foods such as whole milk, cheese and full fat yogurt, may not be as harmful to our hearts as once thought. 

It’s a new way of looking at nutrition, say the experts who study these things. Instead of individual nutrients (such as saturated fat), we eat food — complex mixtures of protein, fat, carbs and other nutrients. Milk for example, is reported to contain 400 different types of fats … some saturated, some not. And perhaps it’s how these fats are packaged with other substances that might explain why the saturated fat/cheese issue is still murky.

For example, dairy foods contain a fat (fatty acid, actually) called CLA or Conjugated Linoleic Acid. CLA is a naturally occurring trans fat — different from the dreaded trans fats currently being removed from our food supply. As opposed to the harmful types of trans fats, there is some evidence that CLA may be beneficial with respect to heart disease, cancer, obesity, osteoporosis and the immune system. And since CLA is a fat, it is more available in full fat versions of milk and cheese.

And then there’s the health differences between fermented and unfermented foods, say experts. Yogurt and cheese — fermented, cultured dairy foods — appear to have a health-enhancing edge over butter and fluid milk. For example, some studies have shown that yogurt is associated with a reduced risk for weight gain, possibly due to probiotic "good bacteria" used in the culturing process. 

So now that we’re totally confused, what’s the best advice for cheese-infested holiday get-togethers? Remember that extra fat in food — any food — adds extra calories which contribute to weight gain and elevated cholesterol levels. Indulge, but do it in small servings.

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