Go ahead, have a cheeseburger.
A new study finds that whole-fat dairy — including cheese, whole yogurt and whole milk — can help to prevent heart attacks, stroke and other cardiovascular disease.
What’s more, the study found that unprocessed red meat “can be part of a healthy diet.”
Those are the surprising results from experts who created a dietary ranking named the Prospective Urban and Rural Epidemiological (PURE) Healthy Diet Score.
The PURE diet finds six food groups — fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, fish and whole-fat dairy — can lower the risk of heart disease.
And there’s room in a healthy diet for whole grains and unprocessed meats (like pork and beef, instead of bacon or salami).
“Low-fat foods have taken center stage with the public … with nutrition labels focused on reducing fat and saturated fat,” Dr. Andrew Mente, study author and assistant professor at McMaster University in Canada, said in a news release.
However, “our results show that up to two servings a day of dairy, mainly whole-fat, can be included in a healthy diet,” he added.
The PURE diet, published in the European Heart Journal, is based on the following six building blocks:
- Fruit: 2 to 3 servings daily
- Vegetables: 2 to 3 servings daily
- Legumes (beans, lentils, peas): 3 to 4 servings weekly
- Nuts: 7 servings weekly
- Fish: 2 to 3 servings weekly
- Dairy: 2 servings daily
“Moderate amounts of fish and whole-fat dairy are associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular disease,” Mente said.
“The same health outcomes can be achieved with moderate consumption of grains and meats — as long as they are unrefined whole grains and unprocessed meats.”
The PURE diet differs from other healthy diets, like the Mediterranean diet, in that it was developed using information from wealthier Western economies as well as low-income countries.
The data used in the PURE analysis included 147,642 people from the general population of 21 countries across five continents.
“This was by far the most diverse study of nutrition and health outcomes in the world and the only one with sufficient representation from high-, middle- and low-income countries,” Mente said.
“The connection between the PURE diet and health outcomes was found in generally healthy people, patients with cardiovascular disease, patients with diabetes and across economies,” he added.
The PURE diet used a ranking system of zero to six, with healthier diets ranked higher (five or more). Overall, the average diet score was 2.95.
Compared to the least healthy diets with a score of one or lower, the healthiest diet (with a score of five or more) was linked with a 30% lower risk of death, 18% lower likelihood of cardiovascular disease, 14% lower risk of heart attack and 19% lower risk of stroke.
But co-author Dr. Salim Yusuf, also of McMaster University, noted that the study’s results were most pronounced in areas with a poor-quality diet, where calorie intake was mostly refined carbohydrates.
“This suggests that a large proportion of deaths and cardiovascular disease in adults around the world may be due to undernutrition, that is, low intakes of energy and protective foods,” Dr. Yusuf said.
But before you stock up on sirloin steaks, a note of caution: The study authors stress “variety and moderation” is key to a healthy diet. Whole grains and unprocessed meats should still be consumed in moderation, or no more than about one serving daily.
The results of the PURE study could turn decades of dietary advice on its head.
“The new results in PURE, in combination with prior reports, call for a re-evaluation of unrelenting guidelines to avoid whole-fat dairy products,” said Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University in Boston.
“It is time for national nutrition guidelines … and food-based healthcare interventions to catch up to the science,” Mozaffarian added. “Millions of lives depend on it.”