Not all dairy products are created equal. Discover different types of dairy foods and how they impact your heart health – as well as how to choose healthy substitutes if milk products aren’t for you.
Is dairy good for your heart?
Overall, research shows that milk, yoghurt and cheese have a neutral effect on your heart health, meaning they don’t increase or decrease your risk of heart disease. On that basis, the Heart Foundation advises that these dairy products can be eaten as part of a heart-healthy diet.
However, these foods contain saturated and ruminant trans fats, which can increase LDL cholesterol; in turn, LDL cholesterol can increase your risk of heart disease. So, should you opt for full fat or reduced fat when it comes to these milk-based products?
A question of personal health
If you’ve already got high cholesterol or existing heart disease, then reduced-fat milk, yoghurt and cheese are the way to go. However, if you don’t have high cholesterol, the choice is yours – there’s not enough evidence out there to say that reduced fat is better for you than full fat, or vice versa. Fat content aside, make sure you choose unflavoured products as these can help limit how much added sugar you consume.
What about butter?
Research from the Heart Foundation  shows that butter raises both good and bad cholesterol, with the increase in bad cholesterol overshadowing the rise in good. If you already have high cholesterol, butter can increase your cholesterol levels even further.
So, before you start slathering butter on your morning toast, consider these Heart-Foundation-recommended substitutes:
- Olive oil
- Nut butters
- Cottage or ricotta cheese
- Spreads made with healthy oils, such as olive oil.
… and ice cream?
Ice cream, cream and dairy desserts have more sugar and fat, and less protein, vitamins and minerals than other dairy foods – which means they’re not part of a heart-healthy diet. According to the Heart Foundation, you should only eat these products sparingly and only in small amounts.
If you’re craving something creamy, swap out ice cream for unflavoured yoghurt and add fruit, nuts or seeds for extra flavour.
Getting the serving size right
When it comes to how much you eat, there’s no evidence to support specific portion sizes or to indicate how many servings of dairy you should have for heart health. However, the Australian Dietary Guidelines recommend eating between 2-4 serves of milk, yoghurt and cheese a day to make sure you get enough calcium.
The following are example of serving sizes for these products:
- 1 cup milk
- 200g (3/4 cup) unflavoured yoghurt
- ½ cup of ricotta or cottage cheese
- 40g (2 slices) of hard cheese
Dairy alternatives can be heart-healthy too
While many of us enjoy cheese and other milk products, health reasons, allergies and personal preferences mean that others might choose to avoid dairy altogether.
The good news? Eating dairy isn’t essential to maintaining a heart-healthy diet – but it’s important to include other calcium-rich alternatives if you decide to go without. If you’re looking for high-calcium dairy alternatives, try soy, almond, oat or rice milk products with added calcium and no added sugar. You can also get calcium from non-dairy foods like fish with bones, almonds and tofu – so there are lots of options available if milk-based products aren’t for you.