Low fat products are often promoted as better for you. They contain less fat and are often lower in calories, which seems to make them perfect for weight loss and for health.
This is particularly true for dairy. But, the debate over full fat vs low fat dairy isn’t as straightforward as you might expect.
Is Full Fat Unhealthy?
Saturated fat is one of the main reasons that full fat dairy is thought to be unhealthy.
We’ve long been told that saturated fat leads to heart disease and obesity. Recommendations continue to suggest that we should cut down on our saturated fat intake. Yet, modern research doesn’t support that idea at all.
A 2018 study is a particularly good example of the shift in evidence. This study examined 2,907 American adults, focusing on cardiovascular disease, fatty acid levels and death.
The authors found no significant association between fatty acid intake and the risk of cardiovascular disease or the risk of death from the disease.
The study has several key advantages.
- It followed the population for 13 years
- It used detailed and reliable statistical analysis tools
- It measured levels of dairy fat in the blood, rather than relying on people’s estimates of their eating patterns. This is particularly important, as self-reported eating habit details are very unreliable
There have been plenty of other studies that focus on this field as well.
For example, a 2014 meta-analysis examined the outcomes of 76 different studies. Those studies used various methods and samples to consider the relationship between fatty acid consumption and heart health. The meta-analysis failed to find any link between fatty acid intake and cardiovascular health.
The outcomes suggest that, for the general population, dairy fat is not going to increase heart disease risk. As such, recommendations for decreasing saturated fat intake are not rooted in science.
The Historic Research
The debate surrounding saturated fat is partly a story of how research changes. Early research into saturated fat did find a heart disease link. But, we now know that the scientific approaches that were used were limited.
Studies tended to rely on observational outcomes only, while analysis didn’t take lifestyle differences into account. The end result was that saturated fat looked unhealthy, largely because many people who ate significant saturated fat also had unhealthy lifestyles.
To make matters worse, the idea of decreasing saturated fat intake became common advice and even policy long before it was proven through research. Healthline talks about the research and health implications in more detail.
Which Type is Better?
Most modern research suggests that saturated fat isn’t linked to heart disease. It may even offer some health benefits. That brings us back to the main question, should you be choosing full fat or low fat dairy?
To look at this, we’re going to focus on full fat vs low fat milk. This is the main area of debate. The same concepts apply to other types of dairy too.
As the table below shows, full fat and low fat milk are very similar to one another. The biggest difference is the fat composition. Other components are roughly the same.
Non fat Milk (1 Cup)
Full Fat Milk (1 cup)
10% DV (fortified)
The fat in milk may help you to absorb the nutrients better. This is most relevant on low-nutrient diets. If you’re getting plenty of nutrients elsewhere, it probably isn’t an issue.
Full Fat vs Low Fat Milk
The difference in fat content between one type of milk to the next is important. The fat influences the way the milk tastes, its calorie content and its impact on hunger.
Advantages of Full Fat Milk
- Tastes richer and creamier.
- Can be particularly good for frothing and in many hot drinks.
- Has a more appealing mouth feel.
- Tends to be more filling.
- May promote weight loss and health.
- Added sugar is rare.
Advantages of Low Fat Milk
- Some people prefer the lighter texture and flavor.
- Can be useful for keeping calories low, especially for people who consume significant amounts of milk.
- The saturated fat content is much lower. While saturated fat isn’t linked to heart disease, most research has focused on normal dietary levels of consumption. As a result, people getting significant saturated fat elsewhere in their diet may not want a large amount from dairy as well.
- Many low fat brands don’t have extra sugar or other additives. Instead, you’re simply getting milk that contains less fat.
Weight Loss and Health
Some studies suggest that full fat dairy products, including whole milk, can help promote weight loss, along with overall health.
- A Swedish study of 1,782 middle-aged men found that increased fat from dairy decreased obesity risk, while low levels of dairy fat increased obesity risk (1).
- An analysis of nurses found that those with higher levels of some full fat dairy byproducts had a significantly lower risk of developing diabetes (2).
- Some saturated fats can have health benefits, like decreasing the risk of strokes (3).
Such research strongly suggests that full fat dairy may improve health.
However, the studies tend to be observational in nature and focus on overall patterns. This means we don’t know the underlying mechanism. We can’t even be sure whether the dairy is causing the benefits – or whether they are linked to behavior.
For example, research suggests that when people cut out fat, they tend to increase calorie intake elsewhere (4). That increase often means consuming more sugar and/or carbs (5).
The different types of milk are pretty similar to one another. The same is true for dairy in general.
The largest variation is in fat content. But, while higher fat milk contains more calories, it is also more filling. This may also help you decrease calorie intake elsewhere. Full fat dairy may offer additional health and weight loss benefits, although the research is far from conclusive.
Many of those benefits seem to come from behavior. This suggests that you might see the same effects from low fat milk as long as you didn’t increase your sugar or carb intake.
Indeed, some experts say that the best advice is to simply eat more dairy, regardless of the type. A similar perspective applies for high fat versus low fat products (6). In many ways, it isn’t the fat itself that’s the issue but your diet as a whole and the food in question.
With this in mind, you can choose whichever type of dairy suits your needs. You might simply decide based on the type that you enjoy the most.
It’s clear that full fat dairy isn’t unhealthy. There’s no need to decrease your intake or cut it out of your diet. It may even offer some health and weight loss benefits.
Even so, the nutritional differences between the two types aren’t dramatic. This gives you the ability to decide based on personal preferences and your current needs.
Want to Improve Your Health?
Better health starts in the kitchen, with the food that you eat and the meals you prepare. Getting the best outcomes involves making good choices about the food and the ingredients that you use.
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