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Some experts adamantly advocate for giving up dairy, while others caution that dairy products provide important nutrients, like calcium, that are tougher to absorb from other sources. Indeed recent research suggests that following a dairy-free diet may increase your risk of osteoporosis. Still, full-fat products like cheese and yogurt tend to get a bad rap. (FYI, here's the fit woman's guide to getting enough calcium.)
Right now, people are all about "healthy fats"—like the monounsaturated fat that comes from avocado or polyunsaturated fat and omega 3 fatty acids that come from salmon—but dairy doesn't get to be part of the good-for-you fat club because it contains higher levels of a different kind of fat [cue scary music]: the unsaturated kind of fat. At the moment, the USDA dietary guidelines recommend that people of all ages choose fat-free or low-fat dairy over full-fat options. That's because it's been thought for decades that eating too much saturated fat ups your cholesterol and thus increases your risk of heart disease.
That said, scientists have been exploring whether or not this is entirely true. A study published in Lancet looked into how eating dairy relates to heart disease and death. More than 136,000 people from 21 countries reported on how much high- and low-fat dairy they ate over the course of 15 years, and researchers also kept track of how many of the subjects suffered from heart disease or died. Of the people who ate only full-fat dairy, the group that ate about three servings per day had a lower mortality rate than those who had less than 1/2 servings per day. Upping your fat-filled dairy intake might not be such a bad idea if you've been cutting it out. (This is probably another reason to consider swapping your skim milk habit for whole milk.)
Last year, a review published in the European Journal of Epidemiology brought similar good news. Researchers analyzed 29 previous studies to see if dairy is bad for your heart health, and in the end, they found "no associations between total dairy, high- and low-fat dairy, milk and the health outcomes including all-cause mortality, coronary heart disease or cardiovascular disease." What does this mean for your cheese and cracker habit? Basically, there's no evidence that eating any kind of dairy is bad for your overall heart health. Score! (Side note: Low-fat diets actually sabotage your weight loss.)
Yet another review published in Advances In Nutrition in 2016 showed that eating dairy, regardless of fat content, doesn't appear to increase the risk of any heart-related health issues. That means they couldn't find any measurable differences between the heart health of people who eat full-fat dairy, low-fat dairy, or no dairy at all. It also didn't matter how people were consuming dairy—cheese, milk, or yogurt all faired the same when it came to showing a relationship between dairy and cardiovascular problems.
Does this mean you can eat as much gouda as you want from now until forever? Not necessarily. "Overconsumption of any food that is high in calories and/or saturated fat can lead to weight gain and digestive issues," food scientist Taylor Wallace, Ph.D. told us in Is Cheese Really as Addictive as Drugs?. So just like most things, it's still best to eat full-fat cheese in moderation.