A heart-friendly diet can make all the difference to our prospects for a healthy older age and now it seems a special group of foods may give us a helping hand in protecting against heart disease and stroke. These foods – fermented dairy products such as yogurt and cheese – are associated with a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD), this research roundup shows.
It’s long been established that our diet plays a crucial role in our risk of CVD. Fermented dairy foods are made using microorganisms and may contain live microbes that are probiotic – these can survive in the gut and may have the potential to confer health benefits to the person consuming them. Researchers believe they achieve their beneficial effects through improving the community of microbes that normally reside in our digestive systems.
Research has suggested that probiotics in fermented dairy foods produce chemicals that may stop cholesterol building up in the walls of our arteries and forming dangerous atherosclerotic plaques, say the authors of this article. As a result, fermented dairy foods may prove to reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke.
Until now, studies have failed to lead to clear conclusions
Diets including fermented foods such as yogurt and cheese have been shown to be associated with a reduced risk of CVD, or to have a neutral effect, say the authors. However, the many studies that have looked at the association of fermented dairy foods with the risks of CVD have given inconsistent results.
To gain a clearer overall picture, the authors reviewed relevant studies published in English between 1980 and 2018 that used food frequency questionnaires to examine the association between yogurt or cheese consumption and the risk of CVD.
Fermented dairy foods are associated with reduced risk of heart disease and stroke
They identified ten relevant studies, altogether including 385,122 participants and reporting 64,667 cases of heart disease or stroke. Assessing the data, the authors compared the risk of CVD in people who consumed yogurt or cheese with the risk in people who never ate these foods.
Overall, eating yogurt or cheese was associated with a 17% reduced risk of heart disease or stroke. When the authors looked at new cases of heart disease or stroke only, the effects were even more marked – consumers of yogurt or cheese had a 20% lower risk than non-consumers.
Looking at the individual food types, yogurt-eaters were 22% less likely to develop CVD than people who didn’t eat yogurt. The effects were less pronounced for cheese-eaters, who showed a 13% reduction in CVD risk compared with those who didn’t eat cheese.
How might fermented dairy foods achieve such benefits?
Research has suggested that the protein content of yogurt may help people maintain a healthy weight and reduce their risk of heart disease and stroke by controlling appetite and reducing the amount of food they eat. Probiotic bacteria such as Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium may strengthen the immune system. Beneficial effects of probiotics on the gut microbiota may reduce levels of harmful chemicals entering the bloodstream where they can damage blood vessels and lead to CVD.
‘Our meta-analysis indicated that fermented dairy foods intake was associated with decreased CVD [cardiovascular disease] risk.’ – Zhang K et al, 2019.