Even if you don’t have high blood pressure, chances are someone else in your life does. Just take a look at the numbers: According to the CDC, nearly 120 million Americans have hypertension, defined as a systolic blood pressure greater than 130 mmHg or diastolic blood pressure greater than 80 mmHg. And more than half a million deaths had hypertension as a primary or contributing cause. But it’s not just death that makes high blood pressure so concerning. When hypertension isn’t brought under control, it significantly raises your chances for heart disease or stroke.
But there is good news. Research suggests scooping up a bowl of yogurt for breakfast and making milk the base of your post-workout recovery smoothies might be one way you can use your diet to help prevent blood pressure creep. Yes, you read that right: Much-maligned dairy could actually do the heart some good.
And, no, this dietitian isn’t on the dairy council payroll. It’s just a matter of fact. The nutritional makeup of dairy, especially certain types, may make it a notable ally in the battle against hypertension. Well, as long as you aren’t lactose intolerant or sensitive to the stuff, that is.
Here’s why you might feel a little better about your Greek yogurt addiction if you’re keeping your heart health in mind.
The connection between dairy and blood pressure
It’s looking pretty good when it comes to the role dairy plays in helping regulate blood pressure.
A large international study involving nearly 150,000 adults from 21 countries published in BMJ Open Diabetes Research & Care found that consuming at least two daily servings of dairy over a 12-month period is linked to lower risks of high blood pressure, as well as diabetes and metabolic syndrome, which is the cluster of factors (such as high blood triglycerides) that heighten cardiovascular disease risk.
At least 2 servings of total dairy per day was associated with an 11 to 12% lower risk of both high blood pressure and diabetes. That benefit rose to a 13 to 14% lower risk for 3 daily servings.
What dairy did the researchers test? Their dairy products included milk, yogurt, yogurt drinks, cheese and dishes prepared with dairy, and were classified as full (2% milk fat) or low fat (1% or less). Interestingly – and good news for those who can’t stomach skim milk – the observed associations were strongest for higher-fat dairy products, keeping in mind that this category did not include butter, cream or yogurt products with a milk fat percentage higher than 2 percent.
What makes dairy so beneficial for high blood pressure?
Dairy foods are rich in all the right nutrients. These items provide high-quality protein and a wide range of essential vitamins and minerals, including calcium, potassium, zinc, phosphorus, and vitamins A, B12, and riboflavin – all nutrients that may help in the battle against hypertension.
Therefore, the potential impact of dairy on health cannot be projected solely from its saturated fat content. The overall nutrition matrix of certain dairy products (i.e. not greasy pizza) is what might make them good news for heart health, when consumed in reasonable amounts and as part of a predominantly whole food diet.
Plus, the fat in dairy can make what you’re eating more satiating, a detail that may help you maintain better overall calorie control in their diets. There could even be something special about the makeup of fat in milk and its ilk that sets it apart from the fat you’d glean from other animal-based foods like beef and pork.
The study’s authors acknowledged the heart-healthy patterns they noticed may be linked to participants’ overall diet, although they took steps to adjust for this in their analysis. And since this is an observational study, and as such can’t establish a proven cause and effect, there’s only a link. Still, the study suggests that dairy, including products with some fat, is probably a safe component of an overall healthy diet geared towards better blood pressure numbers and other health measures. And it adds evidence that a range of dietary patterns can support long-term health, including those that include or eschew dairy.
There’s more heart healthy news
This isn’t the only data released in recent years showing that a dairy habit can help drive down blood pressure numbers. Other research suggests that enjoying dairy-based foods may have a positive effect on hypertension and heart health in general
An investigation in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition randomly assigned overweight adults to follow one of two equally caloric diets for six weeks: a low-dairy diet containing one or fewer servings daily or a high-dairy diet providing 5 and 6 servings of lower fat dairy for women and men, respectively. After a four-week washout period where people went back to following their typical diets, they then followed the other dairy diet. Blood pressure was measured at the start and the end of both intervention diets.
The results showed that higher dairy intakes resulted in a greater reduction in both systolic and diastolic blood pressure levels. The authors speculate that a rise in calcium intake could be a principal factor behind these results. It’s thought that calcium plays a role in better blood pressure management because it helps blood vessels tighten and relax when needed.
Additionally, another study which compared a normal Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) dietary pattern to one that swapped out low-fat dairy foods for full-fat versions discovered that the modified DASH diet, which was still high in fruits and vegetables, was just as effective at lowering blood pressure numbers in participants as was the regular DASH diet – but the modified version was even better at reducing blood triglyceride and very-low-density lipoprotein (VLDL) levels. This can be beneficial in helping stave off heart disease. The lower-fat DASH diet, however, was better at reducing LDL cholesterol.
This is more evidence indicating that dairy, even higher-fat versions, may not negatively impact cardiovascular risk factors when consumed as part of a nutritious diet.
Going forward, we can only hope there are large randomized trials of the effects of different types of dairy products on long-term blood pressure and other health indices to shed further light on the links highlighted in the aforementioned studies.
Making dairy work harder for you
While your overall dietary pattern is more important when it comes to blood pressure and general health than any one food, there are ways to get more out of the dairy in your life. Try these five tips to reap the heart-healthy potential of your favorite dairy foods.
1. Opt for fermented dairy foods
Ideally, at least one of your daily dairy servings will be fermented such as yogurt, kefir or cultured cottage cheese. There might be an extra advantage to the beneficial microorganisms they supply.
Researchers from Tufts University in Boston found that over 14 years, people who reported that at least 2 percent of their daily calories came from yogurt were 31 percent more likely to maintain healthier blood pressure numbers year after year. And new research out of the International Dairy Journal found that older people with hypertension had significant improvements in systolic blood pressure and mean arterial pressure (a measure of the average pressure on one’s arteries when their heart beats) with frequent yogurt consumption.
2. Greener pastures are better for you
Preliminary research suggests that milk squirted from dairy cows nourished on pastures is higher in mega-healthy omega-3 polyunsaturated fat and perhaps a few important nutrients like iron and vitamin E. But it remains to be determined if the extra levels of these nutrients are high enough to make much of an impact. You can look for products with the green American Grassfed Association logo for a guarantee that you’re getting what you’re paying for.
3. Go with the big O
Dairy with the USDA organic seal must come from cows that are not administered hormones (used in some conventional dairy farms to increase milk production) and must spend at least four months of the year roaming and nibbling on pesticide- and GMO-free pasture, but organically grown grains can also be a part of their diet.
If your food budget won’t allow for a shopping cart full of organic dairy, you can mix and match organic (or grass-fed) and conventional. That will still give you some nutritional and environmental brownie points.
4. Shelve the sugar
To reap any potential blood pressure or other health benefits from dairy, it’s important to steer mostly clear from products that contain hefty amounts of added sugar. A serving of flavored yogurt can have three times as much of the sweet stuff as plain versions.
5. Don’t go crazy for fat
Yes, it seems like including some dairy fat in your life is nothing to be concerned about, especially if it’s part of a whole-food diet. But none of the results outlined above should give you permission to chug a carton of whole milk and drown your broccoli in butter.
The majority of scientific literature still says it’s a good idea to keep overall saturated fat intake in check for better health long term. So go easy on the heavy cream, butter, cheese and extra fat yogurt. Products like 2 percent yogurt and 2 percent sour cream can be a happy medium.