Adding milk to your tea, coffee or cereal could help ward off heart disease, research suggests.
The health pros and cons of dairy have long been debated, with a high milk intake previously being linked to cardiovascular complications.
After analysing more than 417,000 people, scientists from the University of South Australia found a "greater milk consumption" was linked to lower cholesterol levels and reduced amounts of circulating fat in the blood.
It was also associated with a 14% reduced risk of coronary artery disease. This occurs when the vessels that supply oxygen-rich blood to the heart become blocked, leading to chest pain and breathlessness.
In severe cases, coronary artery disease can trigger a heart attack or mean the vital organ is too weak to pump blood around the body sufficiently.
Although it is unclear why milk may boost heart health, dairy is rich in calcium, which could break down circulating fat and cholesterol.
Heart disease is behind more than one in four deaths in the UK alone.
While genetics play a part, most cases are thought to be preventable via lifestyle changes, like quitting smoking, exercising regularly and drinking in moderation.
Whole milk is relatively high in saturated fat, which can lead to heart disease if consumed excessively. Low-fat dairy has been found to reduce the risk, however.
"People have long had a love-hate relationship with milk, which is not surprising given the mixed messages about dairy," said study author Professor Elina Hypponen.
"While some reports show high dairy and milk consumption is linked with cardio-metabolic risk factors, evidence from randomised controlled trials have been inconsistent."
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To learn more, the scientists analysed data from three genetic studies, which recorded their participants' milk intake.
Results, published in the International Journal of Obesity, linked a higher milk consumption to a heavier weight. Perhaps surprisingly, it was also associated with lower cholesterol levels.
While a high body mass index is also a risk factor for heart disease, the scientists concluded: "These data suggest no need to limit milk intakes with respect to cardiovascular disease risk".
Professor Hypponen added: "While we confirm milk can cause an increase in body fat, we also show it leads to lower cholesterol concentration and lower cardiovascular disease risk.
"The risk reduction could be explained by milk calcium, which has shown to increase the enzymes that break down fats within the body and thereby lower cholesterol levels."
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Milk is generally lower in fat than other dairy products, like cheese or yoghurt.
Calcium may also increase the excretion of bile acids from the liver, which help to break down cholesterol. In addition, the mineral may influence our gut bacteria, with a rise in "good" bugs helping to remove "bad" cholesterol from the body.
"What this shows is milk can be a part of a healthy balanced diet," said Professor Hypponen.
"There is no need to limit milk consumption if you're looking to improve your heart health."
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