Full-Fat or Low-Fat Dairy: Which Is Best?

Nutrition is an ever-changing field. One day, a certain food is good for you; the next day, not so much. It always seems like researchers and dietitians are changing their minds, leaving you to feel like no one knows what’s going on and that you might as well eat what you want (hey, we’re all going to die someday, anyway, right?).

One of the recent nutrition “controversies” surrounds dairy foods, such as milk and yogurt. Most of us have either been told or have read that nonfat or low-fat dairy foods are better choices because they contain less saturated, or unhealthy, fat. And we dutifully pour skim or 1% milk on our cereal and opt for fat-free or low-fat yogurt when we shop. But a few studies have cast a shadow over that advice, hinting that low-fat dairy may not be all that it’s cut out to be, in terms of health benefits. These studies seem to point at the same conclusion: full-fat dairy may indeed be better than low-fat dairy.

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The case for full-fat dairy foods
The new, 2015–2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans still push for low-fat dairy foods. But the following fairly recent studies are leading us to believe that full-fat may be the better option:

Scandinavian Journal of Primary Health Care, 2013: In this study, men aged 40 to 60 who had a high intake of dairy fat from butter, milk, or cream had a lower risk of central obesity; those who had a low intake of dairy fat had a higher risk.

Diabetologia, 2014: Of almost 27,000 people, ages 45–74, those who ate eight servings of full-fat dairy foods (for example, milk, yogurt, cheese, cream, butter) lowered their risk for diabetes by nearly 25%.

European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 2010: Of roughly 1,500 Australians who consumed dairy foods, those who consumed the most full-fat dairy (milk, yogurt, cheese), were less likely to die from cardiovascular disease than those eating the least full-fat dairy.

Circulation, 2016: In the 1980s and ’90s, biomarkers of dairy fat were measured in blood samples from 3,333 adults. Over the next two decades, the subjects were followed and tracked to see who developed diabetes. Those who had the most dairy fat in their diets were about 50% less likely to develop diabetes.

Why the paradox?
It would stand to reason that eating lower-fat dairy foods would prevent weight gain, protect against heart disease, and possibly even lower the chances of getting diabetes. So why the discrepancy? Here are a few explanations:

• Maybe the fat in the dairy foods curbs hunger, so that one eats less.

• Maybe eating lower-fat foods causes one to load up on carbohydrate foods (and less-healthy carbohydrate foods, at that, such as yogurts loaded with sugar).

• Maybe there is a yet-to-be-discovered factor that is exerting its effects.

Not so fast…
Not all researchers (or dietitians) are in favor of pouring the skim milk down the drain just yet. First, keep in mind that a lot of the research mentioned above was conducted as prospective studies. A prospective study is a study that involves a lot of watching and waiting over a period of time. A prospective study, while helpful and interesting, is not strong enough or conclusive enough to establish cause and effect. In other words, the fact that there was a group of Scandinavian men who ate high-fat dairy foods and who didn’t gain weight doesn’t mean that everyone should jump on the bandwagon and guzzle whole milk. It’s possible that other factors played a role in the results, for example. And one of the other study authors even cautioned against taking his study results as dietary advice.

Other research has not shown a link between high-fat dairy foods and diabetes prevention or weight loss. And high-fat dairy foods can prevent insulin from working as well. Insulin resistance is a pathway to the development of Type 2 diabetes.

Finally, saturated fat, the kind of fat found in whole milk, butter, and cheese, hasn’t exactly been vindicated yet. But that’s a topic for another time.

What should you do?
It’s so tempting to start slathering butter or plopping whipped cream on your foods. Understandably, non-fat and even some lower-fat versions of dairy foods just don’t taste good (have you ever tried fat-free cheese?). And their texture can often be, well, less than desirable. But remember, nutrition isn’t an exact science, and there’s still a need for some caution. If you choose to go full-throttle on full-fat dairy, OK. But consider the following:

Limit your servings to no more than two per day. Calories still count.
1 tablespoon of butter = 100 calories
1 ounce of cheddar cheese = 114 calories
8 ounces of whole milk = 146 calories
1 cup of whole milk yogurt = 170 calories
(You get the point.)

Eat foods with healthy, unsaturated fats. Until we learn more about saturated fat, it’s wise to make sure that you consume healthier fats, such as olive oil, peanut oil, olives, avocado, nuts, seeds, and fatty fish. By the way, red meat, which is high in saturated fat, has not gotten the same “green light” as dairy foods in terms of disease prevention and weight control.

Go easy with ice cream. As delicious as it is, there’s not a lot that’s healthful about ice cream. It’s full of saturated fat, calories, and sugar. Enjoy a small portion as an occasional treat.

Stay tuned. The controversy isn’t over yet. No doubt, we’ll hear and learn more about full-fat dairy foods over time.

The story of her sister’s diagnosis with Type 1 diabetes is one that Amy Mercer and her family will never forget. Bookmark DiabetesSelfManagement.com and tune in tomorrow to read more.