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Low-Fat vs Full-Fat: What Science Now Says About the Dairy You Eat

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For decades, doctors told their patients to avoid full-fat dairy for fear it would contribute to chronic diseases, such as cardiovascular disease. However, the pendulum is starting to shift as we are now seeing positive effects on both heart health and weight management with the consumption of full-fat dairy.

The dairy aisle is quickly becoming almost as difficult to navigate as the cereal aisle. With the rise of research suggesting that dairy fat may not be as harmful to heart health as we once thought, consumers are reconsidering which jug of milk or carton of yogurt to purchase.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), among other governing bodies, have emphasized lowering total fat—specifically cholesterol, saturated fat, and trans fat—intake as a means to improve the general health of the population. These guidelines were based on the assumption that saturated fat intake is associated with increased risk of chronic diseases, such as cardiovascular disease (CVD). Historically, diets containing high amounts of dairy fats have been thought to contribute to CVD due to their concentrated amounts of saturated fat. However, the pendulum is starting to shift as we are now seeing positive effects on both heart health and weight management with the consumption of full-fat dairy.

The New Research
To dive a little deeper into the science behind this theory, it’s important to note that the fatty acids in whole dairy foods are highly complex and have distinct physiological effects. According to Adam Lock, PhD, an assistant professor at Michigan State University, “the saturated fatty acids in milk vary in their structure and many have no effect on plasma cholesterol.” (2) Some research suggests dairy fat raises only the large and less artery-clogging subgroups of LDL particles.

What’s more, whole dairy foods actually contain beneficial ingredients. In addition to satiating amounts of protein, dairy products also contain calcium, which has been shown to have a positive impact on blood pressure. (1) Fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E, and K) are also better absorbed in the presence of fat.

Consuming full-fat dairy products may also have a positive impact on weight. A 2013 review published in the European Journal of Nutrition reported less weight gain and a lower risk for obesity among people who ate full-fat dairy products. New research is revealing that when the amount of fat is reduced in the diet, it's replaced with sugar or carbohydrates, which can result in an array of lipid abnormalities.

The Bottom Line
Full-fat dairy is less processed, more satiating, and tends to taste better than low-fat or fat-free dairy. Choosing a container of whole-milk yogurt over its 100-calorie counterpart, for example, is going to help you stay full and possibly even eat less throughout the day. Although more research needs to be done to determine if the USDA guidelines should be modified in the future, what we do know is that whole and low-fat dairy can be part of a healthy diet. Here at Cooking Light, we prefer to use full-fat dairy and stretch it wisely in our recipes for maximal taste, texture, and nutritional benefit.

1. German JB, Gibson RG, Krauss RM, et al. A reappraisal of the impact of dairy foods and milk fat on cardiovascular disease risk. Eur J Nutr. 2009;48(4):191-203.

2. Lock AL, Destaillats F, Kraft J, German JB. Introduction to the proceedings of the symposium “Scientific Update on Dairy Fats and Cardiovascular Diseases.” J Am Coll Nutr. 2008;27(6):720S-722S.