If you’ve been drinking low-fat or skim milk because you’ve been told it’s healthier for you, our concierge family doctors would like to offer some information that might change your mind. Although the research is not yet definitive, several recent studies have suggested that full-fat dairy products are actually better for you in several ways.
As we’ve mentioned in the past, a single study with atypical findings can usually be disregarded pending further research that either supports or refutes the authors’ conclusions. But in the case of full-fat vs. reduced-fat milk, several studies have appeared to demonstrate the health benefits of going with the full-fat version.
Different studies, similar findings
One major study conducted at McMaster University in Canada was published in the journal Lancet in 2018. Researchers examined the daily dairy intake of 136,384 people from 21 countries over nine years. It found that those who consumed an average of three servings of dairy a day had lower overall rates of mortality and showed a lower risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke than those whose diets contained no dairy. They also found that the more whole-fat dairy subjects consumed, the better their cardiovascular health than those who consumed lesser amounts.
Another meta-study published by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) looked at the relationship of high-fat dairy consumption and obesity, cardiovascular health, and metabolic disease (the precursor to diabetes and heart disease). It found that consumption of dairy fat or high-fat dairy foods reduced the risk of weight gain, while not contributing to cardiometabolic risk.
A 2016 study published in the journal Circulation followed 3,333 adults over 15 years and found that subjects who had consumed the most full-fat dairy products had a 46 percent lower risk of developing type 2 diabetes during the study.
Research published last month in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition reviewed 28 studies from seven countries that involved about 21,000 children. The researchers concluded that children who regularly consume whole milk showed a 40 percent lesser risk of being overweight or obese than those who drink reduced-fat milk.
Finally, another study, also published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, found that eating full-fat cheese raises heart-healthy HDL cholesterol levels better than the low-fat varieties.
Rethinking conventional wisdom
Several other studies over the last decade have reached similar conclusions. So where did the belief arise that lower-fat is better? It began in the 1960s with the campaign to reduce saturated fat in our diets, along with findings that saturated fat raised levels of the heart-damaging LDL cholesterol.
“These two facts started the skim milk craze,” Robert Lustig, professor of pediatrics at the University of California, San Francisco, told The Guardian.
And because full-fat dairy products are higher in calories, many experts assumed that would lead to additional weight gain, thereby increasing the risk of diabetes. But at least one study found that those who consumed more full-fat dairy products still showed a lower risk for type 2 diabetes independent of any weight gain.
While these findings don’t seem to make sense logically, several theories have been proposed.
It could have to do with the way our constant tinkering with Mother Nature tends to have negative impacts, such as processing meat until it’s barely recognizable or adding so many artificial ingredients to various foods that they practically glow in the dark. Researchers have suggested that removing some or all of the fat from milk also removes beneficial ingredients. This includes beneficial microbes in cheese, and the natural balance of protein, milk sugars, and the fat itself, which improves cells’ ability to break down sugars.
Another theory: “When someone eats full-fat dairy versus low-fat dairy, the fat will actually delay the absorption of the milk’s sugar,” Laura Cipullo, author of “Women’s Health Body Clock Diet,” told US News. “As a result, blood sugar rises more slowly over a longer period of time. Consequently, insulin follows this same pattern,” she said. “Less circulating insulin means less risk for the development of insulin resistance and diabetes.”
In addition, full-fat products make people feel full longer, thus decreasing the total amount of food they consume, including sugary foods. And often, people add sweet flavorings to skim-milk—including chocolate—to make it more palatable.
“This is just one more piece of evidence showing that we really need to stop making recommendations about food based on theories about one nutrient in food,” Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian told Time magazine. Mozaffarian was the lead researcher on the study published in Circulation. “It’s crucial at this time to understand that it’s about food as a whole, and not a single nutrient,” he added.
This doesn’t mean we’re suggesting you rush out and start gorging on huge amounts of dairy products. As Mozaffarian pointed out, it’s not only a question of not focusing on a single nutrient but on a single food. A healthy diet is a balanced diet, one that contains a variety of fresh, unprocessed foods.