For years, supermarkets have been filled with foods that are supposedly healthier for your heart because they’re “low-fat”—especially dairy products.

Now new research takes aim at this low-fat trend and finally provides some answers on dairy products and the health of your heart.

When researchers at the George Institute for Global Health, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, and Uppsala University decided to study how dairy fats affect our health, they didn’t go about it the usual way.

Food Questionnaires are Unreliable

The most commonly used method for studying the interactions between food and human health is a questionnaire where people report the foods that they’ve eaten during the study period. And then, using these food diaries, researchers correlate meals and snacks of each person with the individual illnesses that they’ve suffered.

But when the George Institute researchers decided to investigate the effects of dairy foods, they worried that test subjects’ recall of the meals and snacks they ate couldn’t be relied upon. For one thing, the researchers figured that since dairy ingredients are included in so many different types of foods, it’s virtually impossible for the average person to accurately remember all the different types of dairy foods they’ve eaten.

“Instead,” says researcher Matti Marklund, Ph.D., “We measured blood levels of certain fatty acids, or fat ‘building blocks’ that are found in dairy foods, which gives a more objective measure of dairy fat intake that doesn’t rely on memory or the quality of food databases.”

And when professor Marklund and his colleagues approached their analysis in that way, they found something that may surprise you: People whose blood had the highest level of dairy fats suffered the lowest risk of cardiovascular disease.

Dairy Fat Helps the Heart!

The initial focus of the study centered on more than 4,100 people in Sweden who were in their 60s at the beginning of the research. Using blood tests that measure a particular fatty acid found almost exclusively in dairy foods, the scientists could estimate each person’s daily consumption of dairy fat.

The study ran for 16 years. During that time, researchers tracked the test subjects to see how many of them suffered heart attacks, strokes or other significant cardiovascular problems. The scientists also recorded who died during the study and the cause of each individual death.

The 16-year study showed that people who had the highest consumption of dairy fats suffered from the fewest heart problems. What’s more, these high dairy fat consumers were not at any increased risk of dying from any other disease.1

And then, when this Swedish data was combined with data from research on 43,000 people in 17 other countries who took part in similar studies, the same results were found.

As professor Marklund notes, “While some dietary guidelines continue to suggest consumers choose low-fat dairy products, others have moved away from that advice, instead suggesting dairy can be part of a healthy diet with an emphasis on selecting certain dairy foods – for example, yogurt rather than butter – or avoiding sweetened dairy products that are loaded with added sugar.”

In other words, eating low-fat dairy foods, according to this research, hinders the heart-health benefits you might receive from dairy products. You’re better off indulging in the full fat varieties.

Or, as Dr. Kathy Trieu, another researcher at the George Institute, says, “Our study suggests that cutting down on dairy fat or avoiding dairy altogether might not be the best choice for heart health.”