Heart disease is one of those ailments that we care about – but not enough to stop eating steak or choose to forego that plate of fried chicken tenders. We pass it off with a promise to eat more Cheerios next week, or a pledge to cut back on the fast food later. But for all of our hedging and I’ll-do-it-laters, heart disease is a real risk; the condition has consistently held the top spot over cancer in HealthLine’s ledger of leading causes of death in the United States. In 2016, it claimed a whopping 633,842 lives.


Clearly, we need to start taking the health risk seriously by eating better – but what does that really entail? Some points are obvious: cut back on the fast food and swap out the butter-fried steak for grilled chicken once in a while. Other foods, however, face more contention. Some dieters would to dairy as a threat to heart health, and advise anyone in their vicinity to swap over to almond or soy, and ditch the butter for margarine. But is this really the answer? As it turns out, maybe not: some recent research has found that the dairy products some dieters scorn might actually be instrumental in effecting lifelong heart health. Here, we take a deeper dive into the facts.


Despite the bad rap dairy products receive on diet-themed message boards and in books, dairy has a long-lived and research-backed place in a healthy diet. In 1997, a clinical study on the effects of dietary patterns on blood pressure and cardiovascular health found: “A diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and low-fat dairy foods and with reduced saturated and total fat can substantially lower blood pressure.” It is worth noting that these researchers found that those subjects who included dairy in their diets saw a greater reduction in their blood pressures than those who consumed a solely vegetarian diets or ordinary “control” diet.


But why might this be the case? Some researchers think that the health boost associated with dairy stems from its component nutrients. Calcium, for instance, has been found to both decrease blood pressure and improve blood lipid profiles, while phosphorus, potassium, and magnesium are all known to contribute to blood pressure reduction and/or management. However, the benefits we receive from consuming dairy goes beyond what we might get from taking these nutrients as isolated supplements; as one researcher puts it in an article for Dairy Nutrition: “There is evidence to suggest that the complex matrix of dairy foods, rather than individual milk components, may be as important to improving cardiovascular health.”


Make no mistake, the benefits are significant. One 2016 meta-analysis found dairy consumption to lower stroke risk by as much as 9%, and further reported that cheese could reduce coronary heart disease risk by 18% and 13%, respectively.  


Does this mean that you should drop your regularly planned diet and eat dairy exclusively? Probably not; too much of any food can be detrimental to your health. However, there seems to be little wrong with enjoying a few dairy products as part of a well-balanced meal.