Dairy. Do? Or, Don’t?

Posted by on Jan 6, 2014 in diet | 0 comments

Dairy productsIt’s a new year, we’re past the holidays and those resolutions to eat better may be confusing. Where do you start? And what should you give up first? Sugar? Grain products? Fats?

Whoa! Hold on there, because what I’m about to share may rock your world when it comes to thinking about fats.

When I think about fatty foods, one of the first things I think about are dairy products. Yet, research shows that dairy intake is below the recommended level,  despite well-established recommendations and of course, their contribution to bone health. What’s more, it appears that eating dairy products may actually lower the risk for metabolic syndrome — the constellation of conditions such as obesity, glucose intolerance, high blood pressure and high cholesterol — that together lead to diabetes, coronary artery disease and stroke. A scary related fact is that metabolic syndrome affects more than a third of women after the age of 55, and has been linked with hormonal changes that occur during menopause (check out the metabolic syndrome posts in the Archives).

In a review in the January online edition of Maturitas, Canadian researchers share a few important facts about dairy products and why you may want to reconsider their role in your diet:

  • Obesity. Contrary to popular belief, eating dairy may actually protect against weight gain. While this appears to be counterintuitive, research has shown that dairy may have a beneficial effect on the way that the body breaks down sugar and converts it to fat for storage, and instead, promote the breakdown of fats. Calcium also appears to help the body break down large fat molecules so that the fat is more readily available for energy. And, whey protein appears to help preserve muscle, while lactose and dairy proteins may boost the feeling of fullness. What’s more, eating dairy may actually help reduce that tire around your midsection. However, like any dietary rule of thumb, too much is too much. Dairy intake should be limited to two to three servings a day and products should be consumed along with a balanced diet.
  • Blood sugar. While the evidence is still being teased out, dairy may help to keep blood sugar levels in check by preventing insulin sensitivity, that is, balancing the way that insulin is produced and the cells’ reaction to it (when cells lose their sensitivity to insulin, diabetes results).
  • Fat in, fat out. Dairy products have long been linked to saturated fat, which has been shown to increase the risk for heart disease. Yet, in moderation, whole fat dairy may actually help balance cholesterol and blood fats levels and even boost good cholesterol – HDL – levels. Still, this is not a free pass for eating all the whole dairy products that your heart desires; everything in moderation. In other words, if your daily intake includes a serving of whole dairy, you need to compensate elsewhere in your diet.
  • Blood pressure. Data suggest that consumption of 3 servings a day of low-fat dairy products may actually reduce the risk of high blood pressure by roughly 16%. The best choices appear to be ‘fluid dairy’ (i.e. milk and yogurt) rather than cheese. While researchers are uncertain how dairy yields a protective effect on blood pressure, it may be due to their action on the cells that line blood and lymphatic vessels. Among their various function, these cells, better known as the endothelium, help keep the blood pressure in check.
  • Inflammation. Increasingly, low grade inflammation in the body is being linked to disease. In fact, it is considered a key factor in the development and progression of metabolic syndrome. Certain components in dairy may actually reduce blood markers of oxidative stress and inflammation.

I asked my friend and colleague, and registered dietician/nutritionist extraordinaire Danielle Omar  to weigh in on dairy and whether there is any advantage to using low fat versus full fat products. She says that she’s  “not a huge fan of fat free dairy products, especially skim milk. The fat in milk helps with the absorption of fat soluble vitamins (A, D, E, K) and other nutrients that can only be assimilated into the body when eaten with fat,” adding that it’s likely that “choosing more fat free vs whole fat dairy will cause weight gain over time.” The reason? People tend to eat more low- versus full-fat dairy before they are satisfied. Moreover, some of the low-fat dairy products are very high in sugar and without fat to slow digestion can cause insulin spikes/hunger crashes —  can lead to overeating. Danielle also says that “people tend to overeat low-fat foods because they think they are being “healthy.”

Dairy? Do! Just be certain to balance it out with other healthy items in your diet.

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