Moreover, the scientists at the University of South Australia believe that consuming a dairy-enhanced Mediterranean diet is even more effective than a low-fat diet alone.
Their study, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, compared the health benefits of a MedDiet supplemented with several servings of dairy each day, and a generic low-fat diet.
Using a randomized controlled cross-over design trial, researchers took 41 participants from around Adelaide aged between 45 and 71 with at least two risk factors for cardiovascular disease and put them on two separate diet plans.
The first followed the standard guidelines of the Mediterranean diet, but included three to four daily servings of dairy foods to hit the calcium target. One serving of dairy was equivalent to a cup of low-fat milk, 200g of low-fat Greek yoghurt, 200g of tzatziki, and no more than one portion of cheese. Butter and cream stayed off the menu, however.
The second diet was a low-fat one, long the standard Australian recommendation to those at risk of cardiovascular disease.
The subjects followed their prescribed courses over eight weeks, went back to normal eating during an eight-week “washout" period, then switched to the other diet for eight weeks.
Attention, processing speed, memory and planning were assessed at the start and end of each intervention, while mood and health-related quality of life were also evaluated. Dementia risk was measured too.
The results show that the dairy-supplemented MedDiet—christened MedDairy—significantly improved blood pressure, heart rate, cholesterol, mood and cognitive function.
This is particularly interesting as dairy fat has spent many years as a dietary demon in Western countries, though increasingly more research continues to indicate moderate quantities as being protective.
One large study in particular, published in The Lancet this year, established a link between three or so servings of dairy a day and lower rates of cardiovascular disease.
Alexandra Wade, who was part of the research team, says the new MedDairy diet challenges popular perceptions of what is considered healthy.
“The MedDiet is fast earning a reputation as the world’s healthiest diet and is renowned for delivering improved cardiovascular and cognitive health,” Wade said.
“But it’s also higher in fat, which can be a deterrent for people seeking to adopt a healthier eating plan, especially if they don’t realise the difference between healthy and unhealthy fats.
“In Australia, low-fat diets are often recommended for improving heart health and they are still perceived as being healthy.”
While low-fat diets are often encouraged in Australia to improve health, and fad diets are especially popular Down Under, the new study appears to have shifted this theory.
“This study shows that the new MedDairy works better than a generic low-fat diet, ensuring better health outcomes for people at risk of cardiovascular disease,” Wade added.
Cardiovascular disease is the single leading cause of death in Australia, affecting 4.2m Australians and killing one Australian every 12 minutes, according to official figures.
Low-fat diets are often recommended as suitable food plans for those seeking to reduce their risk factors for cardiovascular disease. Similarly, the Mediterranean diet has been shown to deliver significant health benefits.
Importantly, the MedDairy diet also meets additional calcium requirements recommended by Australia’s national health bodies.
A typical MedDiet includes extra virgin olive oil, fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, legumes, wholegrain breads, pastas and cereals, moderate consumption of fish and red wine, and low consumption of red meat, sweet and processed foods.
It also features 1-2 servings of dairy foods (700-820mg calcium), which is less than half the dairy recommended by the Australian National Health and Medical Research Council for older Australians.
The Mediterranean diet's missing dairy means Australians could fall short of their calcium requirements, potentially risking the health of their bones as they age.
“Living in Australia, we have different dietary requirements, notably a need for more calcium to protect against osteoporosis,” Wade said.
“These needs are unmet in the traditional MedDiet, which makes it difficult for people to adopt in the long term.
“This study delivers healthier options for Australians by tailoring the nutrients in the MedDiet to meet the needs of a non-Mediterranean population.”
In Australia, women up to age 50 years—and men up to age 70 years—should consume 1000mg per day of calcium per day and 1,300mg thereafter, which is roughly between 3.5 and 4.5 servings a day.
“The new MedDairy diet allows for three to four servings with dairy, which means Australians can more sustainably meet their recommended daily nutrient intakes while also maintaining the significant health benefits offered through the MedDiet.
“When it comes down to it, people want to be able to enjoy a colorful, tasty and nutritious diet. And if you’re one of the thousands of people seeking to improve your cardiovascular and cognitive health—look no further than the MedDairy diet,” Wade added.