For decades we've been fed (no pun intended) hard-line recommendations to avoid full-fat foods, regardless of whether or not the fats came from fried foods, red meats or dairy products. It's been the mantra of the 20th Century for as long as most of us can remember and has certainly been good for big agriculture and the food industry.
Now comes a recent study, published this past July in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition that measured blood levels of three fatty acids known to correspond only with dairy fats. Almost 3,000 participants ages 65 and older were measured at six and again at 13 years. (All were free from cardiovascular disease at the start of the study.) While almost 2,300 had died from various causes at the conclusion of the study 22 years later, researchers found no significant links between long-term intake of dairy fats and any cause of death, including heart disease or stroke. In fact, one type of saturated fatty acid in dairy was associated with lower risk of stroke-related deaths.
This study lends support to the general findings of long-term observational studies that dairy foods either reduce risk of cardiovascular disease and diabetes or simply have no effect. That includes higher fat as well as lower fat dairy. From these findings and other studies, it would seem reasonable to assume that eating or drinking full-fat dairy products do not represent the risk of dying prematurely that for many decades we've been led to believe.
It should be understood that whole milk dairy foods are more than vehicles for fat. Like other foods, they are a complex mixture of vitamins, minerals, proteins and carbohydrates as well as unsaturated fats. Part of the controversy and inconclusiveness about the role of saturated fats in health and disease could be because of the other qualities of the food they're "packaged" in and that packaging really matters. When our consumption of dairy comes loaded with sugar and refined carbohydrates, for example, ice cream, pizza and fast foods, dairy gets a bad name which really needs to go to the sugar and refined carbohydrates in them that are the real killers.
However, no article on dairy would be complete without addressing the butter controversy. A 2017 study, also in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, found that a butter-rich diet increased "bad" LDL cholesterol more than a cheese-rich diet. But replacing butter most often with monounsaturated oils like olive or avocado resulted in a lower LDL, a finding consistent with other research. A reasonable conclusion here is that a little butter on your toast in the morning is fine but consuming fats as monounsaturated fats is much healthier.
Finally, not all full-fat dairy is created equal. Yogurt with live cultures and natural cheeses (in other words, not processed like Velveeta) appear to have more benefits, possibly because they are more highly fermented foods which are good for the gut. The best approach is to pair a good hard cheese with fresh fruit, like a pear or apple rather than getting your servings of dairy in ice cream and pizza. And if you love butter, use it minimally and definitely enjoy it!