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A study of Costa Ricans suggests that dairy products, such as ice cream, yogurt and butter, do not elevate risks for a first heart attack.

Here's the scoop: Dairy doesn't boost heart-attack risk

by Janelle Schroeder
May 20, 2011

Reaching for that extra scoop of ice cream may not be so harmful to your health after all – at least your heart health. A new study out this month suggests that dairy consumption does not elevate heart-attack risk despite its saturated fat content.

Researchers from the Department of Community Heath at Brown University in Providence, R.I., conducted an analysis that showed the dairy intake by people who had heart attacks was not statistically different from those who did not.

“The overall message of dairy consumption, at least in the levels we studied, is that it is not likely to increase your risk of heart attack, said Stella Aslibekyan, co-author of the study and graduate student at Brown when the study was done. She is currently a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

Along with Ana Baylin and Hannia Campos, Aslibekyan analyzed the data of a Harvard School of Public Health study of 3,630 Costa Rican men and women under 75. Half of the participants had survived their first heart attack and half of the participants served as the control group.

Participants were divided into five groups based on dairy consumption.

“The range of median dairy intake extended from 24 grams per day in the lowest group to 593 grams per day in the highest group,” the researchers stated  in a paper published in Nutrition, Metabolism & Cardiovascular Diseases. That ranges from less than 1 ounce to almost 30 ounces of dairy per day.

The results showed that dairy intake was not associated with the risk of heart attack, but that the effect of dairy products is “likely to involve a balance of factors.” Dairy is a rich source of calcium, magnesium, potassium and vitamin D.

For this study, dairy includes butter, buttermilk, cheese, cottage cheese, cream cheese, cream, ice cream, lactocrema, 1 percent milk, 2 percent milk, whole milk and yogurt.

Each of the participants recorded their dairy intake as well as exercise, smoking and alcohol intake and income. Trained study workers collected biological specimens and body measurements.

Those specimens were then tested for two biomarkers, or fatty acids, that are specific to dairy.

“If we see those, we know those people ate dairy,” Aslibekyan said. “It’s an objective biochemical measure.”

According to the study, heart attack participants had higher frequencies of heart-attack risk factors including smoking, low physical activity, lower monthly income, abdominal obesity and a history of hypertension, diabetes and high cholesterol.

Controlling for risk factors, the researchers found that the lack of statistical difference remained.

Even though this is good news for dairy consumers, it is not a go-ahead to eat an entire carton of ice cream, according to Celia Harkey, health and wellness manager at the Midwest Dairy Council.

“In general, most people really need to be looking at going to low-fat or fat-free dairy,” she said.

The American Heart Association also recommends keeping saturated fat consumption to less than 7 percent of total energy intake.