Can Whole Milk Dairy Foods be a Part of the DASH Diet?

January 04, 2016

With high blood pressure and elevated blood LDL cholesterol (LDL-C, or “bad cholesterol”) affecting more than 70 million Americans, it’s easy to see why cardiovascular disease (CVD) remains the number one cause of death in the United States. Fortunately, maintaining a healthy diet, like embracing the Dietary Approach to Stop Hypertension (DASH), can help reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease. Overall, the traditional DASH eating plan is low in fat and saturated fat and emphasizes consumption of low-fat and fat-free dairy foods as well as fruits and vegetables, whole grains, fish, lean meats, nuts, seeds and legumes. However, long-term compliance with eating plans reduced in saturated fat is sometimes poor. In addition, although the DASH eating plan has a positive effect on two of the major risk factors, blood pressure and LDL-C, it can have a negative impact on other CVD risk factors such as lowering HDL-cholesterol (HDL-C, or “good cholesterol”) and raising blood triglycerides.

Now a new study indicates the DASH eating plan can be modified to include whole milk, yogurt and cheese without sacrificing health benefits.

In this randomized, controlled trial (i.e., the gold standard), researchers modified the saturated fat content of DASH-like meal plans, mainly by replacing fat-free and low-fat dairy foods with whole fat dairy (whole milk, yogurt and cheese) in conjunction with a 12 percent reduction in simple sugars (mostly from fruit juices). They compared the effect of the standard DASH eating plan, the whole fat dairy DASH plan and a typical Western eating plan (control) on blood pressure and lipid markers in a group of healthy adults. All three eating plans were similar in calories and designed to maintain weight for each individual.

The results of the study showed:

Blood pressure was similarly reduced when participants followed the standard or the whole fat dairy DASH eating plan, compared with the control diet.

The whole fat dairy DASH eating plan did not reduce HDL-C as has been shown in other studies, though it decreased triglycerides when compared with the standard.

Interestingly, the whole fat dairy DASH eating plan did not increase total cholesterol or LDL-C levels, despite a 6 percent higher saturated fat intake than the standard (14 percent vs. 8 percent).

Other researchers have studied the effects of modifying the macronutrient composition of the DASH eating plan, with positive results. For example, recent research indicated substituting 10 percent of calories from simple sugars (from fruit juices) with fat (mostly monounsaturated fat) in the DASH diet did not affect LDL-C levels, but reversed the negative effects on HDL-C and triglycerides.

This clinical study adds to the greater body of science suggesting that whole milk and reduced fat dairy consumption likely is not associated with CVD risk as once thought, and in some cases has actually been shown to reduce the risk of CVD.

The findings from this study indicate that the DASH eating pattern can be modified to include whole milk dairy foods without losing its positive health benefits and may even help improve some additional CVD risk factors. Therefore, providing your clients with the flexibility to choose fat-free, low-fat, reduced-fat and whole fat dairy foods while following the DASH eating pattern may not only help them to reduce blood pressure, but also improve their overall blood lipid profile. Of course, it’s important to be mindful of overall calorie consumption within a nutritionally balanced meal plan, especially for clients who are looking to manage their weight.

Bottom line, DASH has been the cornerstone of a healthy diet for many years, and it may have just gotten better!