If your goal is to eat a healthy diet, there’s a good chance you gravitate towards skim milk and low-fat yogurts when you’re in the dairy aisle at the grocery store. Fewer calories and fat grams means it’s better for you, right?
Not so quick! According to a growing body of research, the bad rap that full-fat dairy gets may be unwarranted. In fact, studies are suggesting that when it comes to milk, yogurt and cheeses, the full-fat versions might be providing health benefits that lower-fat substitutes don’t — provided the foods are eaten in moderation.
This goes against conventional wisdom as even the current USDA dietary guidelines suggest we eat fat-free and low-fat dairy options. Also, school lunches come served with low-fat milk (yes, even chocolate milk) instead of whole milk, something a House bill aims to change.
“The recommendation to consume only low-fat dairy is outdated,” registered dietitian Stephanie Simms Hodges, the founder of The Nourished Principles, says.
Here’s what research and registered dietitians we spoke to have to say about the full-fat dairy paradox.
Studies Show Health Benefits of Full-Fat Dairy
Hodges points to a study published last year in The Lancet, a peer-reviewed medical journal, that showed that consuming two or more servings of full-fat dairy foods daily is associated with better heart health. The study was large in scope, including more than 136,000 people in 21 countries over the course of nine years. It found that consuming two or more servings of full-fat dairy foods daily was associated with a 34% lower risk of stroke, a 22% lower risk of heart disease and a 23% lower risk of death from heart disease.
“Because of this research and others that support these findings, I recommend children (age 1 and over) and adults consume whole-milk dairy products,” she says. “Of course, it’s important to practice moderation with all foods.”
Beyond heart health, though, a separate study in 2016 found that dairy fats in milk, yogurt and cheese have the potential to protect against Type 2 diabetes. The research involving 3,333 adults was published in the journal Circulation and found that participants who had higher levels of byproducts of full-fat dairy had an almost 50% lower risk of developing diabetes.
Yet another analysis from Sweden that involved nearly 1,800 middle-aged men found that those who consumed butter, cream and high-fat milk were less likely to become obese over a period of 12 years compared with their counterparts who rarely or never ate high-fat dairy.
Why Dairy Fat May be Good for Us After All
Researchers agree that more studies need to be done to better understand the role that dairy fat can play in reducing heart disease risks and curbing obesity and Type 2 diabetes.
Some believe that the fat in dairy can help keep people full, which in turn means they’re not consuming as many calories while snacking on high-carb or high-sugar foods.
Another idea? Not all saturated fats are created equal, as research shows that saturated fat in meats increases heart disease risk.
One study found that full-fat dairy has beneficial nutrients. For example, milk proteins contain enzymes that inhibit fat cells, which can reduce obesity and blood pressure.
“The fat in whole milk and reduced-fat dairy foods may have unique properties that differentiate it from other food sources of fat,” says Erin Coffield, a registered dietitian at the National Dairy Council. “The research is emerging and unfolding.”
Incorporating healthy fats is important, Coffield explains. Fat can help children’s brain and nervous systems develop correctly. Fat also helps support cell growth, protect our nerves and provide energy, and it helps the body absorb important nutrients, she says.
What Does This Mean For People Who Don’t Consume Dairy?
If you have a dairy intolerance or have adopted a plant-based lifestyle, you may wonder what the takeaway is for you and your way of eating.
The common misconception about dairy consumption is that you need to have some form of dairy in your diet to provide optimal nutrition, says Kathryn Hughes, a registered dietitian from Long Island, New York.
“This is false because the nutrients that dairy prides itself on — calcium, vitamin D and protein — can all be sourced from other foods such as leafy greens, beans, eggs, fish and even calcium and vitamin D-fortified juice or plant based-milks,” she says.
For people who avoid dairy altogether, Hughes recommends eating at least two cups of leafy greens a day and incorporating tofu into your diet once or twice a week.
So, do you think full-fat dairy has been exonerated? Or, do you plan to stick to lower-fat milks, cheeses and yogurts? Or do you eschew animal by-products in favor of a vegan diet?