Is Full Fat Dairy Better for You?

As the percentage of sales for butter and whole milk increase, you may be wondering if full fat dairy is better for you or if this is just a passing fad. Today’s nutrition decoded tries to answer that for you!
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By now I’m sure you are well aware of the recommendation to keep our saturated fat intake low because high saturated fat intake has been associated with increased risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, elevated cholesterol, and obesity.

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015-2020 recommends that less than 10% of your fat intake should come from saturated fat. So for a person who consumes 2,000 calories/day, that would mean less than 200 calories should be from saturated fat.

In order to help meet that goal, we usually recommend children and adults ages 2 and up choose low- or non-fat dairy products. It offers the same nutrition but less calories from fat, specifically saturated fat.

However, there have recently been studies and reviews that have suggested that people who consume full fat dairy products have had smaller waist lines and are less likely to develop cardiovascular diseases than those who consume low- or non-fat dairy products (1). Also of note, the Nurses Health Study suggests that full fat dairy may play a beneficial role in increasing fertility (2). When the fat is removed from milk, the balance of the hormones are altered in a way that negatively affects ovulation and conception in women. It would seem from these resources that full fat dairy is our friend, not our foe as previously thought.

There are different possible explanations for this. The first one is to say that fat helps to increase satiety, so full fat dairy products would definitely add to feelings of fullness, especially when coupled with the protein that is found in all dairy products. It can also be argued that the reason saturated fat from dairy is better than saturated fat from other sources is because the dairy products contain nutrients that helps us out whereas the saturated fat from other sources may not contain so many healthful nutrients.

The second line of thinking suggests that there are beneficial fatty acids found in the saturated milk fat that promote heart health. (3) More than 400 different fatty acids have been identified in milk fat, and while the role of each one is not known, it is thought that maybe this is the reason that saturated fat found in dairy products is beneficial, not harmful. However, milk consumption of any fat level has been associated with lower levels of heart disease, so it may be in combination with the other nutrients that make dairy products so good for us, not the fat itself.

More research needs to be done to form more solid conclusions, but the research so far is very interesting!

My Advice:

As a general rule, it is wise to not choose a food based on only one nutrient. Look at the whole picture. Drinking whole fat milk is not going to make you less at risk for cardiovascular disease by itself. It has to be balanced with a healthy lifestyle.

Choose full fat dairy products if you truly like them better, but be sure to account for the extra calories somewhere else. For example, there are some recipes where I truly think you need the heavy whipping cream as opposed to a lightened-up version, so when I choose to use the full fat option, I also choose (usually…) to eat a smaller portion. It’s a balancing act! We should definitely eat the foods we like, but we also need to pay attention. Too much of any type of fat, saturated or unsaturated, is not a good thing.

Pay attention to your hunger and satiety. If you choose to drink whole milk, then make sure you are enjoying it and pay attention to how it makes you feel. Does it help you feel fuller? If it does, then drink it!

Choose the milk products that work best for you (just promise not to cry if any of it spills). 😉