Studies show that full-fat dairy not only doesn't contribute to obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease, it may even help prevent them.
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.
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.
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!
Now I’d like to hear from you. Do you consume full-fat dairy, or are you still on the non-fat/low-fat bandwagon? If you’ve recently switched from non-fat/low-fat to full-fat dairy, what have you noticed? Let us know in the comments section.