Full-fat dairy vs low-fat dairy – which is better?
Low-fat milk has been a smart choice for the health crowd for decades. At least, many people believe it to be healthy food.
For years all you had to do was stick a “low-fat” sticker on food and people would swear by it as a healthy product.
But things are changing now.
There has been a reversal in the fortunes of whole milk. Following years of demonization, it is finally becoming trendy again.
Even the influential Time magazine ran with the story, “The Case Against Low-fat Milk is Stronger Than Ever”, back in April this year.
But should we switch back to whole milk? This article will look at the differences between full-fat dairy and low-fat dairy in more detail, examine what people say about them, and then provide a summary of what the latest science says on the issue.
What is Whole Milk?
Whole milk quite simply means that the milk has not had any nutrient removed. People often call it ‘full fat’, but in reality, it has a relatively small percentage of fat.
In the US, whole milk has a fat content of only 3.25% (1).
Whole milk is much higher in fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E, K) than skim milk.
It is also the kind that your grandparents likely drank every day – and their ancestors too.
After all, we used to drink milk raw, collected straight from a local animal. There were no huge commercial milk processing factories back in those days.
Is Whole Milk Bad For You? What Do People Say?
Some people believe whole milk to be undesirable. They question why we would drink full-fat milk when you can just as easily drink skim milk; a choice that is much lower in both calories and fat.
This belief has some big backers too.
US Dietary Guidelines: “Aim for three servings of low-fat or fat-free dairy per day.” (2)
UK Eatwell Guide: “Choose lower fat dairy.” (3)
American Diabetes Association: “Choose lower-fat dairy products. The best choices of dairy product are fat-free or low-fat.” (4)
American Heart Association: “Select fat-free and low-fat dairy products.” (5)
New Zealand Ministry of Health: “Eat some milk and milk products, mostly low-fat or fat-free.” (6)
Whole milk is the closest to natural milk, but most national health organizations advise against it.
What is Skim Milk?
The process of making skim milk removes all the cream (otherwise known as milkfat or butterfat) from milk. Skim milk has virtually 0% fat (7).
Skim milk loses many fat-soluble vitamins during the process of removing the milkfat, so it is often fortified with synthetic vitamins to make up for this.
Historically skim milk was used for fattening pigs.
Later, it became popular for human consumption as a result of low-fat dietary guidelines.
Is Skim Milk Bad For You? What Do People Say?
Despite the national health organizations pushing skim milk; several respected medical professionals and nutrition journalists are pushing back against this advice.
There is a disconnect between dietary guidelines and the changing media coverage on skim milk.
Some recent media stories that ran:
The Guardian: “A growing body of evidence seems to indicate that whole milk could be a healthier choice.”
Time Magazine: “The case against low-fat milk is stronger than ever.”
The reference is clear: whole milk is natural, and skim milk is just another processed food.
Nina Teicholz, a best-selling investigative journalist, takes us on a tour of nutrition history in her book, stating: “When the AHA (American Heart Association) started telling Americans to cut back on total fat, this regime had not been tested in clinical trials.”
She then goes on to say that despite this lack of evidence, and in a bid to reduce heart disease, the AHA called for an overhaul of the food production systems in the US – calling for “development of low-fat dairy products.”
Dr. Ann M Childers, a well-respected doctor hailing from Oregon sums up her feelings on skim milk in a blunt fashion: “If you summarize the United States Department of Agriculture food pyramid you see an emphasis on grains plus skim milk, the very combination that fattens hogs so efficiently.”
Skim milk has all the fat removed and is much lower in calories. But recent media articles and several prominent experts are warning against it.
If you summarize the United States Department of Agriculture food pyramid, you see an emphasis on grains plus skim milk, the very combination that fattens hogs so efficiently.
– Dr. Ann M Childers
Full-Fat Dairy vs Low-Fat Dairy – Which is Better?
Clearly a contentious issue, there are many alternate opinions on the best dairy option for our health.
As always in the nutrition world, whenever we want to find the truth we should look to the science.
So let’s see what it says.
A study analyzed the results of 12,829 participants who recorded their dairy intake for a 1-year period. The hypothesis of the study was that subjects drinking greater quantities of dairy fat would gain more weight.
The results of the study found that participants who drank more than three servings of milk per day had a greater increase in body mass. Interestingly, the results also showed that contrary to the hypothesis, only skim and 1% milk was associated with weight gain, but dairy fat was not (8).
A 2013 study reviewed the data from 16 different studies on high-fat dairy intake. In 11 of these studies, high-fat dairy intake was inversely associated with obesity. The authors concluded that “the evidence does not support the hypothesis that dairy fat contributes to obesity or cardiovascular disease” (9).
A study aiming to establish links between prospective studies of milk drinking and vascular disease reviewed ten existing works.
The combined trends presented in these studies showed that there is no convincing evidence milk is harmful, and that milk drinking may even have a positive impact on heart disease risk (10).
A 2014 study reviewed 18 pieces of prior research, with the results showing that total dairy intake did not contribute to cardiovascular disease.
Note-worthily, the authors concluded that the body of evidence suggests that only full-fat dairy, including milk, cheese, and yogurt, may be inversely related to cardiovascular disease (11).
A 2015 study examined links between dairy consumption and stroke in an elderly population.
Low-fat dairy was “not significantly related” to the incidence of stroke, but high-fat dairy was “significantly inversely related” (12).
To make this clear: the data regarding low-fat dairy was mixed, whereas data on high-fat dairy showed it reduced the risk.
In another paper, a prospective case-control study was designed to evaluate risk for stroke in relation to plasma dairy fat. The authors of this particular study noted that the idea of an inverse relationship between stroke and milkfat “may seem paradoxical due to the high amounts of saturated fat in milk.”
Nevertheless, the results of their study confirmed this so-called “paradox,” as once again full-fat dairy appeared to have no links to stroke whatsoever.
Following the results, the authors remarked: “At present, we hypothesize that estimated milk fat intake is associated with a lower risk of first event stroke.”
Ever conservative, they concluded that the results were “intriguing” but that more follow-up studies are needed (13).
Studies on Dairy and Type 2 Diabetes
I can’t possibly think of any reason why.
Moving on… an interesting study from 2014 analyzed dairy fat, in addition to individual types of dairy, with the incidence of type 2 diabetes. A total of 194,458 people were followed, 15,156 of who went on to develop diabetes.
The study found that neither low-fat nor high-fat dairy had any association with diabetes except for yogurt. The results noted that “yogurt intake was consistently and inversely associated with type 2 diabetes risk.” (15)
In a 2016 study, the American Heart Association (AHA) tested the hypothesis that higher plasma dairy fats are associated with reduced diabetes risk. Their results confirmed this to be the case. The AHA remarked that their findings highlight the need to understand the possible health benefits of dairy fat (16).
A 2010 Australian study found that there was no significant or consistent relationship between all-cause mortality and dairy intake.
However, the study did find that compared to the participants with the lowest intake of dairy fat, those with the highest intake of dairy fat had reduced death rate to cardiovascular disease (17).
Full-Fat Dairy vs Low-Fat Dairy – The Science
It’s immediately clear from these studies that the current dietary guidelines are poles apart from what the latest science shows.
Here is a quick summary:
- Full-fat dairy had no association with chronic disease or mortality in any of these studies.
- Full-fat dairy was also inversely associated with diabetes and heart disease in many of these studies.
- Low-fat dairy had either no association or mixed data.
- It appears that consumption of dairy fat is protective to health, meaning full-fat dairy has higher protective health properties and benefits than low-fat dairy.
I tried finding just one recent study that suggests dairy fat is harmful, but I couldn’t.
Looking at the science, I would choose full-fat milk every single time.
The bulk of the studies show that whole milk is much healthier than skim milk – so why do the dietary guidelines still recommend we choose low-fat dairy?