By Dr. Mercola
Trading saturated fats for added sugars and trans fats in our diet is among the worst lifestyle alterations to occur in modern history. We now know this is a recipe for obesity, heart disease, cancer and other chronic diseases.1,2
Many of these illnesses are now showing up in children, who are exposed to these ingredients even prior to birth through their mothers' diets.
The preponderance of research shows that once you reach 18 percent of your daily calories from added sugar, there's a 200 percent increase in metabolic harm that promotes prediabetes and diabetes.3
Fortunately, the low-fat recommendation — which flourished as a result of flawed science linking heart disease with saturated fat and the suppression of research showing sugar was to blame — is finally, albeit slowly, starting to lose its stronghold.
While still not ideal, the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans4,5 do recognize that reducing TOTAL fat intake has no bearing on obesity or heart disease risk. Instead, the guidelines rightfully warn that sugar and refined grains are the primary culprits.
Unfortunately, the guidelines fall far short by still suggesting a 10 percent limit on saturated fats specially.
Harmful fats found in fried foods are another factor driving disease rates skyward. Fried foods are particularly bad for your heart and cardiovascular health, raising your risk for heart failure.6
Meanwhile, research has consistently demonstrated that low-fat diets do not prevent heart disease. It's actually trans fat and oxidized cholesterol — not saturated fat and healthy dietary cholesterol — that clog your arteries.7
Research Exonerates High-Fat Cheese
Cheese has long been demonized for its saturated fat content, but as the saturated fat myth has come under increasing scrutiny, this food may soon experience a revival as well.
Many recent studies into the health effects of cheese have come to exonerating conclusions. As Joanna Maricato, an analyst at New Nutrition Business, stated last year:8
"In the past, studies focused on analyzing individual nutrients and their effects on the body. Now, there is a growing tendency to look at foods and food groups as a whole …
As a consequence, amazing results are appearing from studies on dairy and particularly cheese, proving that the combination of nutrients in cheese has many promising health benefits that were never considered in the past."
Most recently, a Danish research team concluded that eating high-fat cheese helps improve your health by raising your high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol.9,10 Higher HDL levels are thought to be protective against metabolic diseases and heart disease.
Nearly 140 adults were enrolled in the 12-week study to investigate the biological effects of full-fat cheese. Divided into three groups, the first two groups were told to eat either 80 grams of high-fat or reduced fat cheese each day. The third group ate 90 grams of bread and jam each day, with no cheese.
None of the groups saw any significant changes in their low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, but the high-fat cheese group increased their HDLs.
Other Studies Supporting Full-Fat Cheese Consumption
Other recent research11 showed that cheese consumption helps prevent fatty liver and improves triglyceride and cholesterol levels — parameters used to gauge your cardiovascular disease risk. Studies have also found that full-fat cheese can be useful for weight management.12
For example, in a study published last year, researchers found that cheese helps ramp up metabolism, thereby reducing your obesity risk.13
People who ate cheese or dairy on a regular basis, compared to those whose only dairy consumption was butter, had higher levels of butyric acid, a short-chained fatty acid associated with lower cholesterol levels, higher metabolism and lower risk for obesity.14
Roquefort cheese in particular has been linked to cardiovascular health and improved longevity, courtesy of its anti-inflammatory properties.15,16 Cheese — especially when made from the milk of grass-pastured animals — is also an excellent source of several nutrients that are important for health, including:
- High-quality protein and amino acids
- High-quality saturated fats and omega-3 fats
- Vitamins and minerals, including calcium, zinc, phosphorus, vitamins A, D, B2 (riboflavin) and B12
- Vitamin K2 (highest amounts can be found in Gouda, Brie, Edam. Other cheeses with lesser, but significant, levels of K2: Cheddar, Colby, hard goat cheese, Swiss and Gruyere)
- CLA (conjugated linoleic acid), a powerful cancer-fighter and metabolism booster
Eat REAL Cheese
Even if you're lactose intolerant, there are many cheeses you will likely tolerate as most of the lactose is removed during the cheese making process. There is a major difference between natural cheese and processed "cheese foods" however.
Natural cheese is a simple fermented dairy product made with just a few basic ingredients — milk, starter culture, salt and an enzyme called rennet. Salt is a crucial ingredient for flavor, ripening and preservation.
You can tell a natural cheese by its label, which will state the name of the cheese variety, such as "cheddar cheese," "blue cheese" or "brie." Real cheese also requires refrigeration. Processed cheese are typically pasteurized and otherwise adulterated with a variety of additives that detract from their nutritional value.
The tipoff on the label is the word "pasteurized." A lengthier list of ingredients is another way to distinguish processed cheese from the real thing. Velveeta is one example, with additives like sodium phosphate, sodium citronate and various coloring agents.
A final clue is that most processed cheeses do not require refrigeration. So, be it Velveeta, Cheese Whiz, squeeze cheese, spray cheese or some other imposter — these are NOT real cheeses and have no redeeming value.
Raw Cheese From Pasture-Raised Animals Is Best
Taking real cheese a step further, opt for cheese made from raw grass-fed milk (i.e., milk from cows raised on pasture, rather than grain-fed or soy-fed animals confined to feedlots).
The biologically appropriate diet for cows is grass, but 90 percent of standard grocery store cheeses are made from the milk of cows raised in concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), which must then be pasteurized before it can be made into cheese.
CAFO milk cannot be safely consumed without pasteurization due to the increased likelihood of contamination with harmful bacteria, which are prevalent in these crowded, unsanitary settings.
Not only does raw cheese have a richer flavor than cheese made from pasteurized milk (as heat destroys enzymes and good bacteria that add flavor to the cheese), grass-fed dairy products are also nutritionally superior:17
• Cheese made from the milk of grass-fed cows has the ideal omega-6 to omega-3 fat ratio of 2-to-1.
By contrast, the omega-6 to omega-3 ratio of grain-fed milk is heavily weighted on the side of omega-6 fats (25-to-1), which are already excessive in the standard American diet. Grass-fed dairy combats inflammation in your body, whereas grain-fed dairy contributes to it.
• The milk from grass-fed cows contains three to five times more CLA than that from grain-fed animals.18,19 Grass-fed cheese will therefore contain far higher amounts of this potent anti-cancer compound as well.
• Because raw cheese is not pasteurized, natural enzymes in the milk are preserved, increasing its nutritional punch.
• Grass-fed cheese is considerably higher in calcium, magnesium, beta-carotene, and vitamins A, C, D and E.
• Organic grass-fed cheese is free of antibiotics and growth hormones.
Full Fat Dairy Linked to Lower Diabetes Risk
Other types of full-fat (and ideally raw, i.e., unpasteurized) dairy products such as milk and yogurt also have far greater health benefits than their low-fat counterparts, including a lower risk for obesity and diabetes. As reported by NPR:20
"[T]he dairy fats found in milk, yogurt and cheese may help protect against Type 2 diabetes. The research,21 published in the journal Circulation, included 3,333 adults.
Beginning in the late 1980s, researchers took blood samples from the participants and measured circulating levels of biomarkers of dairy fat in their blood. Then, over the next two decades, the researchers tracked who among the participants developed diabetes.
'People who had the most dairy fat in their diet had about a 50 percent lower risk of diabetes compared with people who consumed the least dairy fat, says [Dr.] Dariush Mozaffarian, dean of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University, who is also an author of the study."
Dietary Guidelines Still Have Dairy and Saturated Fat All Wrong
Sadly, the latest Dietary Guidelines for Americans still recommend the use of skim milk and low-fat dairy products over full-fat versions. As a result, school lunch programs serve only low-fat skim milk or chocolate milk, the latter of which is even worse than plain skim, as it's loaded with added sugars instead. Mozaffarian's research is but one of many showing full-fat dairy is far preferable.
In fact, as noted by Mozaffarian,22 "There is no prospective human evidence that people who eat low-fat dairy do better than people who eat whole-fat dairy." This is a typical example of how government recommendations can harm an entire generation when they're wrong.
The guidelines also recommend sticking to low- and non-fat dairy if you're trying to lose weight, which I believe is a serious mistake. Low-fat recommendations are likely to do more harm than good across the board, but it may be particularly counterproductive for weight loss. In fact, mounting evidence clearly shows that a high-fat, low net carb diet can be exceptionally effective for weight loss.
Saturated fats are not only essential for proper cellular and hormonal function; they also provide a concentrated source of energy in your diet. The high-fat, low net carb combination is therefore ideal because when you cut down on net carbs (total carbohydrates minus fiber), you generally need to replace that lost energy by increasing your fat consumption.
The key is to avoid sugars as much as possible, and make sure you're eating the right kind of fats, as all are not created equal. Besides raw, grass-fed cheese, other sources of healthy fats include olives and authentic olive oil (for cold dishes), coconut oil for cooking and baking, raw grass-fed butter, raw nuts such as macadamias and pecans, organic pastured egg yolks, avocados, grass-fed meats, MCT oil and raw cacao. Avoid processed vegetable oils and margarine spreads.
When to Limit Milk Consumption
Raw organic milk from grass-fed cows contains beneficial bacteria that prime your immune system and can help reduce allergies. It's also not associated with the health problems of pasteurized milk, such as rheumatoid arthritis, skin rashes, diarrhea and cramps.
However, while raw grass-fed milk is your best bet if you drink milk, keep in mind that it's high in natural sugar (galactose), so you can quickly end up with a high net carb count when consuming milk, even if it's whole, raw milk. Butter and cheese are far better than milk in this regard, as it's lower in galactose and higher in healthy fats.
Also, if you have a casein sensitivity, you may still experience problems even if you drink raw milk. Additionally, you have milk-derived opioid receptors in your brain, and the milk protein casein contains natural opioids called casomorphins.23 This is why you can become "addicted" to dairy products like milk and cheese.
There's evidence to suggest that by continually stimulating these opiate receptors — even if the opioids are all natural — you could potentially disrupt your immune function. Dr. Thomas Cowan, a family physician and founding board member of the Weston A. Price Foundation (WAPF), discussed this in a recent interview. So if you're seeking to lose weight, maintain nutritional ketosis, or are immune challenged, it may be wise to limit the amount of milk you drink.
Yogurt Versus Kefir
Yogurt and kefir are both made from fermented milk, which makes them good sources of beneficial bacteria that promote gut health.24 The primary nutritional difference between yogurt and kefir is the amount and types of bacteria they provide. Kefir contains a more diverse array of microbes, as well as more of them — up to three times the number of species and up to 40 times the total amount of beneficial organisms typically found in yogurt.
In terms of consistency, yogurt is typically thick and creamy whereas kefir has the consistency of thick milk (you typically drink it rather than eating it with a spoon). Kefir is also more sour than yogurt, which tends to be sweeter, even without added sugars. As with other dairy products, the starting point, meaning the milk, is key in terms of nutritional benefits. Your best bet is yogurt or kefir made from raw organic grass-fed milk. In fact, most commercial yogurts are more akin to sugary desserts than a health food.
Buyer Beware: Most Commercial Yogurts Are Far From Healthy
The Cornucopia Institute spent two years investigating the yogurt industry, producing a Buyer's Guide and Scorecard25 listing the best and worst among commercial brands. The five highest-scoring "USDA 100% Organic" yogurt brands are Traders Point Creamery, Butterworks, Cedar Summit Farm, Maple Hill Creamery and Seven Stars Farm.
Besides added sugar, typically in the form of high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS), most commercial yogurts also contain artificial colors, flavors and additives, all of which can harm beneficial microbes while nourishing disease-causing microorganisms in your gut.
Virtually all commercially available yogurts also use pasteurized milk (heated high temperature) before it is reheated to make the yogurt itself, and this double-heating has its own drawbacks. The top-rated yogurts are generally VAT pasteurized at relatively low temperatures, and are made from raw milk rather than previously pasteurized milk. While not as ideal as making yogurt from raw milk in your own home (which involves no heating at all), it's certainly better than most commercial yogurt.
The report also took a look at the food industry's labeling campaign, "Live and Active Cultures," which is supposed to help consumers select products with high levels of healthy probiotics. To assess probiotic content, Cornucopia tested yogurt purchased directly from the grocery stores instead of following the industry's practice of testing levels at the factory.
As it turns out, many of the brands bearing the "Live and Active Cultures" label contain LOWER levels of probiotics than the top-rated organic brands in Cornucopia's scorecard that are not part of the "Live and Active" campaign. Your absolute best bet, when it comes to yogurt and kefir, is to make your own using a starter culture and raw grass-fed milk. (To find a local source of raw grass-fed milk, see RealMilk.com.) For a demonstration, see the following video.
Take-Home Message: Minimally Processed High-Fat Foods Are Good for You
Focusing your diet on raw, whole and ideally organic, foods rather than processed fare is one of the easiest ways to sidestep dietary pitfalls like excess sugar/fructose, harmful trans fats, genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and other harmful additives, while getting plenty of healthy nutrients. The rest is a matter of tweaking the ratios of fat, net carbs and protein to suit your individual situation.
Remember, just like fructose, trans fats interfere with your insulin receptors, thereby increasing your risk for diabetes26 and related health problems. Healthy saturated fats do NOT have this effect. For optimal health, you may need anywhere from 50 to 80 percent of your daily calories in the form of healthy fats. Full-fat cheese, yogurt or kefir and raw milk from organic grass-fed cows all contain healthy fats, along with beneficial microbes that promote gut health and robust immune function.
For more detailed dietary guidance, please see my optimal nutrition plan. Newly revised and updated, it's a step-by-step guide to feeding your family right, and I encourage you to read through it. I've also created my own "food pyramid," based on nutritional science, which you can print out and share.