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Eating Low-Fat Dairy May Cut Your Stroke Risk

Swedish study says vitamin D plays a major role

En español | Got milk? And is it low-fat?

Your risk of stroke might be reduced if it is, according to a new Swedish study that found that older adults who ate more low-fat dairy foods — including skim milk and low-fat yogurt and cheese — had a lower risk of stroke.

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In what researchers called the largest study on the issue to date, nearly 75,000 older adults were tracked for 10 years after filling out a dietary questionnaire on what foods they ate and how often.

Swedish scientists reported that people who consumed a daily average of four servings of low-fat dairy foods had a 12 percent reduction in overall stroke risk and a 13 percent lower risk of ischemic stroke (the most common kind), compared with those who ate little or no dairy.

The study was published April 19 in Stroke, a journal of the American Heart Association.

Susanna Larsson, lead author and associate professor of epidemiology at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, said that the most likely explanation is that the nutrients in low-fat dairy foods — including vitamin D, calcium, potassium and magnesium — help lower blood pressure, which is a key risk factor for stroke. “If people consume more low-fat dairy foods rather than high-fat,” said Larsson, “they will benefit from a reduced risk of stroke and other positive health outcomes.”

The researchers followed 74,961 Swedes, ages 45 to 83, beginning in 1997. Over the next decade, the group had 4,089 cases of stroke — 3,159 of which were ischemic, in which a clot blocks a blood vessel supplying the brain. Another 583 cases were classified as hemorrhagic (bleeding) strokes, and 347 were unspecified. For ischemic strokes, the more low-fat dairy food subjects consumed, the lower the risk, the study found.

The researchers found that full-fat dairy products, such as whole milk, didn’t raise or lower the stroke risk.

Adam Bernstein, M.D., research director of the Cleveland Clinic’s Wellness Institute who recently led a large study of how different protein sources affect stroke risk, says his research did not find the same benefit from low-fat dairy, but he points out that Swedes consume much more dairy on average than Americans.

Swedes also eat some dairy products that are not widely consumed in the United States, such as soured milk and crème fraiche. And Swedish low-fat milk has 0.5 percent fat, equivalent to U.S. skim milk, while medium-fat milk has 1.5 percent fat, a bit less than the 2 percent reduced-fat milk in the States.

Further, the Swedish study didn’t identify what foods people might have been eating less of, notes Bernstein, whose own research has linked both red meat and soda consumption to heightened stroke risk. Perhaps people who ate more low-fat dairy were at lower risk of stroke because they also ate less meat or fatty junk food.

Bernstein thinks simply recommending that people add more low-fat dairy foods to their diets may be overly simplistic. Health experts need to make sure that people don’t just add more dairy at the expense of other healthy foods, such as fruits and vegetables, he says.

Also of interest: 7 simple steps to heart health.