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Still Think Low-Fat Dairy Is the “Healthy Choice”? Think Again!


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Studies show that full-fat dairy not only doesn't contribute to obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease, it may even help prevent them.

low fat dairy vs full fat dairy
Low-fat dairy has long been believed to be healthier than full fat dairy. istock.com/PrairieArtProject

I’ll keep this one short and sweet. Okay, maybe not sweet, since it’s a bit of a rant—but so be it!

When I’m at home and in my normal routine, it’s easy to make the mistake of assuming that we’ve made a lot more progress in terms of shifting the public perception of what constitutes a healthy diet than we really have.

After all, nearly everyone I communicate with on a daily basis (friends, family, colleagues, readers, etc.) understands that red meat isn’t evil, eating cholesterol won’t clog your arteries and give you a heart attack, and whole grains aren’t nutritional powerhouses.

So it’s always a bit of a shock when I go out on the road and find that the world at large still does not share these views. For example, lately I’ve been traveling quite a bit. In the mornings I’ll often head to Peet’s or (only if there’s no alternative) Starbucks and order a coffee. Inevitably several people in front of me will order either a non-fat latté or some other coffee drink with either skim milk or soy milk added to it. In fact, in the last several months I can’t remember a single person that asked for whole milk.

Find out why cream, butter, and whole-milk products are better for you than non-fat dairy. #dairy #lowfat #goodfats

I can’t help cringing when I hear people ask for skim/non-fat milk. Why? Because although we’ve been brainwashed for decades to believe that dairy fat is harmful, recent research overwhelmingly suggests the opposite. Consider the following:

  • A meta-analysis of 16 studies (which our friend and colleague Dr. Stephan Guyenet was a co-author on) found that full-fat dairy was either inversely associated with obesity and metabolic disease, or not associated with them at all. In other words, people who ate the most high-fat dairy foods had the lowest risk for obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. (1)
  • Higher circulating levels of trans-palmitoleic acid (a fatty acid found in dairy fat) are associated with healthier levels of blood cholesterol, inflammatory markers, insulin levels, and insulin sensitivity, after adjustment for other risk factors. In one study, people with the highest levels of trans-palmitoleic acid in their blood had a 60% lower risk of developing diabetes than those with the lowest levels. (2)
  • Another study showed that people who ate the most full-fat dairy had a 69% lower risk of cardiovascular death than those who ate the least. (3)
  • A study at the Harvard School of Public Health found that women who ate two or more servings of low-fat dairy foods per day, particularly skim milk and yogurt, increased their risk of infertility by more than 85 percent compared with women who ate less than one serving of low-fat dairy food per week. (4)

It bears mentioning that all of these studies were observational in nature, so they don’t prove that full-fat dairy is responsible for all of the effects mentioned. But they certainly make it difficult to argue that full-fat dairy is harmful and contributes to obesity, diabetes and heart disease, and if anything, they suggest the opposite is true.

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How Full-Fat (But Not Non-Fat) Dairy May Prevent Disease

How could that be?

Well, it turns out that some compounds in high-fat dairy products—such as butyrate, phytanic acid, trans palmitoleic acid, and conjugated linoleic acid—have been shown to have beneficial effects.

Butyrate provides energy to the cells lining the colon, inhibits inflammation in the gastrointestinal tract, and may prevent colonic bacteria from entering the bloodstream. In fact, butyrate’s anti-inflammatory effect is so strong that a dose of four grams per day for eight weeks induced complete remission in a group of Crohn’s disease patients. (5)

Phytanic acid, one of the fatty acids in dairy fat, has been shown to reduce triglycerides, improve insulin sensitivity, and improve blood-sugar regulation in animal models. In a study of 2,600 U.S. adults, another fatty acid in dairy fat, trans palmitoleic acid, was found to be associated with lower triglycerides, lower fasting insulin, lower blood pressure, and a lower risk of diabetes. (6)

Conjugated linolenic acid (CLA), a natural trans fat found in dairy products, may reduce the risk of heart disease, cancer, and diabetes. (7)

Finally, dairy fat is also a good source of fat-soluble vitamins like retinol (active vitamin A) and vitamin K2, which are difficult to obtain elsewhere in the diet.

Should We Be Consuming Dairy Products at All?

Of course some of you might argue that all of this is a moot point, because we shouldn’t be consuming dairy products at all. I’ve addressed that question at length in my book, and in blog articles like this one.

There’s no question that dairy doesn’t work for everyone. Some people are allergic to or intolerant of the proteins in dairy, or are highly sensitive for lactose.

In those cases dairy must be strictly avoided or additional steps must be taken (such as fermenting milk to make kefir or yogurt, which are lower in lactose) to make it tolerable.

But for people who tolerate dairy, my point is that there’s really no reason to choose low-fat or non-fat varieties—and in fact, by doing so you may be reducing or eliminating the benefits you would get from consuming dairy products in the first place!

Not only that, I think most people will agree that full-fat dairy tastes so much better. Hooray!

Re-Training Yourself to Eat Full-Fat Dairy

Instead of a non-fat latté, choose whole milk. Better yet, make your coffee at home and put some organic cream in it.

Instead of non-fat Greek yogurt, choose whole milk yogurt.

Instead of margarine or one of those “fake” butter spreads made with vegetable oils, choose butter or ghee.

Instead of reduced-fat cheese, choose the real thing.

It might take a while to get used to the taste of full-fat dairy products if you haven’t had them for a while, but you’ll adjust quickly—and your body will thank you!

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Join the conversation

  1. Great article. Making the switch to full fat foods, along with introducing a large abundance of full fat raw dairy, is one of the reasons for my positive turn in digestive health, along with remarkable weight loss. I’m luisieno Indian and now tend to eat a lot of raw full fat cheese, full fat yogurt, homemade raw whole milk kefir, lots of raw and grassfed butter, and drink raw whole milk by the glass when I can get it. I eat more dairy than ever before and have honestly felt better than I have felt in 6 months. I acknowledge I have not had bloodwork to see how I’m responding internally, but if general increased energy and necessary weight loss are positive signs, then introducing more full fat dairy was the right move for me.

  2. Haha, the fact is dairy does not “work” for most people, if it actually is good for anyone…
    Do you need the IGF-1 that a calf needs to double in size in six months? Do you need all the toxins that increase greatly your risk of cancers? Do you need the calcium joined by the animal protein that results in consumers having more bone fractures?

  3. If longevity is your goal, SMSFAS (like raw butter, cheese etc.) should be avoided. SMSFAS are associated wih telomere shortening. It is not entirely clear, why such a relationship exists, but it could be due to inflammatory response. Inflammation is generally associated with telomere shortening http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/…/PMC3652887!po=42.5000

    • Gut flora can convert fiber into short chain fatty acids, in significant amounts too. If we consider that beneficial, I don’t know why consuming SCFAs directly would be a concern. In both instances they’ll enter the bloodstream and have the same effect.

  4. Hey Chris, like reading your posts. I am inclined to do whole milk, but I noticed when I consumed whole milk kefir and yogurt I had body odor problems. On the other hand, it reduced my gynecomastia. When I consume low fat milk, my odor goes away but my gynecomestia comes back. Any take on this? I only buy organic, 99% lactose free.

    • That is really interesting! I’m so glad you posted. My son has gynecomestia and is truly addicted to dairy products.

  5. For people with a healthy lifestyle (such as endurance athletes who eat a balanced diet including lots of healthy fats and colorful vegetables), there seems to be no legitimate reason to avoid nonfat dairy. With a healthy lifestyle, concern over obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease may not be as great as it is for most Americans.

  6. I absolutely love full-fat dairy, and I wonder if it could be a problem. Not with my weight which is ideal, though my cholesterol is high. My other markers are fine though. I eat raw grass fed butter, raw cream, along with raw kefir and yogurt. No milk really, except on half and half in restaurants. I do eat pasteurized full fat dairy too when convenient ori cant get my Amish products. I’m a bit concerned about either the calcium or lactose content, which is why I usually stick with ONLY dairy fats. My concern is that I’ve read that dairy (protein? calcium?) may be linked to prostate cancer. I can’t deny that I feel really good eating full fat dairy but are there other health concerns we should be aware and careful of in consuming dairy?

  7. We use butter and full fat cheese but my husband eats 0,1% yoghurt – I don’t like any kind of yoghurt. But we have been using 1,5% milk for 11 years. Recently I have read several articles that claim that these low fat milks are supplemented with something that causes rather than prevents weight gain. (I live in Europe) So now I’m considering switching to full fat milk again. I also read a report that said if you want a flat stomach, there are 6 foods that you should never eat and low fat milk was onecof them.

      • I was amused to read your comment ” if you can’t find full
        fat yogurts in Europe…” GREECE is in Europe! And apart from Greece, famous the world over for its goats, sheep’s milk and cows yoghurt, yoghurt is made everywhere in every European country and you can buy full fat yoghurt in every supermarket, although I like to buy it in Greece in its own clay bowls.

        • I have yet to see that milk does anything good for humans but there are many studies indicating that it is not good.
          One glass of milk a day increase significantly the risk of prostate cancer. There certainly is no proof that milk builds strong bones, on the contrary there are studies indicating excessive animal protein causes cancer, weak bones and heart disease.

          • The milk proteins are definitely not good, unless you are a growing weaned baby. But even then the fats are important, to avoid obesity for one. Also to obtain the natural A,D,E and K vitamins that are all fat soluble. “Fortified” (lite) milk has synthetic vitamins, far from the real thing. Hence I only use cream and butter, never milk. The blood sugar and insulin rise from milk, the lighter the more with same amount of calories, usually makes one hungrier again, sooner after a meal. The milk protein induced insulin spike hides away the nutrients into the fat tissues instead of leaving them available in the blood as naturally fat milk would do…. ! Obesity follows with lite milk, now proven even for kids 2-4 years old in a US study. Hence beware of official nutrition advice, most likely the key reason so many are fat today!

  8. I had always heard that while pasteurization kills bad bacteria, it also kills good but even more harmful is the homogenization process. Essentially, I heard, that makes the milk genetically modified. But you can’t find milk, even powdered (yuck) that isn’t homogenized unless you can get it straight from the cow, Of course we don’t all live close to dairy farms. We love dairy at our house but try to consume it in moderate portions. Teen age boys don’t seem to get this. LOL So what about eggs? I have my own chickens and like the free range eggs better. But those are also listed by many Dr’s as food we should NEVER eat.

    • Because you see some low-fat milk loaded with sugar is not the reason milk is not healthy. Are the countries that consume loads of dairy healthy…..no! Are the five Blue Zones that consume very little dairy healthy….Yes!

      We do not have the scientific skills to study individual items in diets and it will be likely a hundred years before we know the real facts about meat, fish, eggs and milk. That is too late for me so I will follow the healthy cultures and not what I read on sites like this one…

      • Don’t be so skeptical. Advice from this site helped me overcome almost constant diarrea. I think it may have saved my life by alerting me to kidney failure from taking Prilosec which was damaging my kidneys. It has helped me stabalize my weight. I now never go hungry but my weight is always within a pound or two of normal. I highly recommend considering Chris Kresser’s advice.

        • I have no idea why your comment was directed to me. First of all, I do not consume dairy products, with or without sugar!
          Second, most comments on this site, as most sites, are filled with nonsense.
          You like Chris, fine that is your opinion, not mine…
          I am very familiar with the Blue Zones. I lived on Okinawa for four years and have four books concerning the Okinawan diet and the Blue Zones.
          I prefer Drs Ornish, Esselstyn, Fuhrman and several others over what I find on the Internet in sites supposedly advocating good nutrition.
          Keep your thoughts, I am not trying to convince you of anything. Enjoy and bye!

  9. This is a question more than it is a comment. I have been doing a lot of research on this matter. While I can find information about why whole is better than nonfat/skim, what I can’t seem to find is information on the middle ground. What about low-fat? I read a quick blurb a while ago saying that chemicals were added to make mil product low-fat (as well as non-fat). Is there any truth to this? How do you weigh in on low-fat mil products in general? Any info. is highly appreciated, as I just love having a science-based answer when people ask why on earth I get whole milk at Starbucks, and buy “whole fat” cottage cheese. Thanks!

    • If you read the comment almost directly below yours, you’ll see one of the good reasons for going whole fat. The other reason is that a lot of lower fat foods have sugar added to them to make them more palatable. Even without the added sugar, a whole food is generally more appropriate to eat. The less food is processed (generally but not always!) the more healthy it tends to be. That’s my point of view, anyway. Your mileage may vary.

  10. My personal experience is that you get fat by esting low fat products.

    The reason is that you get hungry again soon after a low fat meal, and then you have a hunger for sweets.
    Meals with more fat keeps you satisfied longer, and you will not have the same hunger for sweets.

    I have gone from a BMI of 29 to 23 after I discovered this, and I do not even struggle to stay at 23, for me it just came naturally with a low carb an high fat diet.