Still Think Low-Fat Dairy is the "Healthy Choice"? Think Again!
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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.

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.

255 Comments

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  1. Here in Florida you have to search for the full fat yogurt and the cream is ultra pasteurized. I am joining a food club to get real cream

    • check out The Fresh Market if there is one close to where you live in Florida. they carry a Bulgarian yogurt called White Mountain that comes in a full fat variety, but check the label!

  2. Hi Chris,

    Since a lot of folks new to the real-food/Paleo scene will encounter Loren Cordain’s articles on dairy, it might be a good idea for you to openly address (or rebuke) some his claims you disagree with.

    I think it would serve as a good example of how 2 smart people can disagree on key points yet adhere to much of the same philosophy when considering the larger picture.

    Cheers

      • Both my kids, ages 13 and 16, have very high cholesterol – both around 260. It’s definitely familial on my busband’s side. They are active and not overweight. I’ve spent the last year on a frustrating journey of reading quality research from you and others, and hearing the exact opposite advice from doctors we’ve seen. A lipid specialist told me to only give them low fat dairy, and he shook his head in disbelief that they don’t start their day with cereal. I just smile and nod.

        I also could not get anyone to prescribe them the recommended blood tests for lipid size. No one’s heard of these tests. I asked 3 doctors. Then I just went ahead and paid for them at an independent lab.. The results were bad and ive ultimately decided to put them both on a statin, but because I’ve done my own research I’m at peace with the decision.

        My point – finally- is that the medical community is so far behind the Paleo community. I understand docs are busy and therefore rely on guidlines. It’s frustrating, but it he lesson is we have to take our health into our own hands.

        • Meryl….can I suggest something for your teenage kids instead of medication. In my nutrition training I’ve learnt high cholesterol is from inflammation and cholesterol is the bodies attempt to bandage it…so to speak. Instead of forcing the numbers down with scary meds that have side effects. Try them on an anti-inflammatory diet. This will allow the body to heal itself. I suggest also looking for foods that are irritating like gluten, dairy, soy, eggs. I would add a lot of raw foods in and use green smoothies several times a day to achieve this along with salads especially in summer. Take out dairy but give them fermented kefir milk instead and coconut water kefir, take out gluten but allow a few whole grains. Organic meat in small amounts. You will need to experiment. Ease into it bit by bit and keep adjusting until you see a difference. If you can’t figure it out then here’s a quick fix that healed me of everything. In summer go raw vegan as per Dr Doug Graham’s 80/10/10 diet. Just for a few months. It’s an amazing feeling and it gives the body time to heal. Loaded with evrrything to allow the body to grow as teenagers too. Good luck!

          • Be careful about raw green smoothies, juices and other raw foods. The cruciferous family–cabbage, broccoli, mustard and many other greens depress thyroid activity and can create hypo-thyroidism. Too much raw, cold food and drinks are believed in Traditional Chinese Medicine to negatively impact kidneys, which in turn impact thyroid.

        • If you are not already familiar, you may want to check out the work of Dr. Thomas Dayspring and some of his case analyses on line, though I cannot recall one with these facts on teenagers.

  3. Chris,
    I think most people choose low-fat and non-fat dairy options because they want to “cut down on calories.” So many people in the general population care very little about the health benefits of full-fat dairy because they don’t want the extra calories associated with them. This is how the thinking goes outside of our little world. How can we change this?

    • You’re spot on. It is as if having a skinny latte makes up for the muffin somehow. Many overweight people or those with cardiovascular disease or diabetes are also specifically told to go for low fat options by dieticians, doctors and nurses. Changing the dietary advice put out by government and health organisations will be necessary before the majority of the population change their eating habits. My favourite high fat dairy food is cheese eg Dolcelatte and ripe Brie. The portions of these served in restaurants, along with the unnecessary biscuits and chutney is pathetically small compared with my home portions.

    • Exactly. That’s the reason I do it. Skim milk in coffee is just as good as whole. I don’t notice the difference really. Same with yogurt. I’d rather blow my calories on pizza and pasta …

  4. a nutritionist put me on to low fat and whole grains years ago in order to lose weight. I haven’t lost a pound but I do enjoy whole grain breads. Is it the whole grain that is In the way? Should I eat only gluten free bread? That tastes terrible to me.

    • Philip, to answer both your questions – yes, but moreover it is ALL grains in general, whole or otherwise, in any form. There are exceptions for occasional grain use such as fermented or sprouted grain products, but generally the human body does far better without them.

    • I used to do the low fat & whole grain ‘diet’, and over the years I gained weight and my joints ached more and more, and my seborrhea dermatitis worsened. I found the paleo diet and have lost 20 pounds, no more joint ache, and dermatitis is very minimal to none. I eat full fat dairy (pastured cows, etc.), and the only grain I eat (on occasion) is white rice at a favorite Thai restaurant. At first I really missed my granola, whole grain toast, and corn bread – but I found some delicious paleo type granolas, and I’ve lost my desire for whole grains. I feel so great, and I just love all he full fat dairy I eat – whether it be specialty yogurts, Kefir smoothies (with banana and two farm fresh egg yolks), raw pastured milk swiss cheese, and paleo granola with full fat raw pastured cow or goat milk.
      ps: I am 55, 5’9, 150, lean, with perfect blood pressure and blood work – no diabetes in me or my family, no heart disease in me or my family (my relatives all lived long lives) …my cholesterol is above 200 and my doc keeps insisting I go on a statin. Seriously, doc??

    • Go grain free now….read Dr. Perlmutter’s “Grain Brain” you’ll be so incredibly happy and especially healthy.

  5. Why dont people know the difference between beta casein A! and A2, raw milk from beta casein A2 cows is the healthiest milk you can drink, my son was dairy intolerant but raw milk A2 works for him, his health has improved and he says, ” its yummy” do your research !!!

  6. Thanks for the article Chris! Effect of butyrate on colon health is really intriguing. How much full-fat Greek yogurt (eg 10% fat content) would a person need to consume in order to produce the same effect as 4g of butyrate? For somebody with Crohn’s/IBS this might be worth giving a try (assuming good tolerance of dairy).

    • A lot. I don’t think it would be easy to replicate the effect of that much supplemental butyrate in the diet.

  7. Hi Chris
    Thank you very much for your article on full fat products! I ask for fatty cuts of meat- yummy! We drink full fat milk and use tasty butter in our cooking- we are really enjoying our health and our clothes are getting looser!!!!! Hooray!!!! Our hope and prayer is that more South Africans embrace this type of exciting lifestyle!!!

  8. I ask for skinny cap or skinny latte purely for the calorie reduction and weight control. The difference between skinny and full cream milk per cup is approx. 70 calories which means that I can use the calorie difference towards something else throughout the day. It has never crossed my mind that drinking full fat milk could contribute to cardiovascular disease. Too much of any food/drink can contribute to health issues. Moderation in all things.

    • Yeah, I used to think that way too, but it’s like being a little bit pregnant, you either are or are not. Low fat anything has to have something added in place of the fat and that is generally HFCS – which doesn’t necessarily increase blood glucose BUT it does go directly to your liver and create much higher tryglycerides. It pays to keep to as natural as possible – your body knows when to signal stop eating, I’m full.

  9. Love that I’m reading this whilst tucking into a bowl of raw milk home made countertop fermented Caspian Cream Yogurt! Doesn’t get better than that 🙂

    ps I would have never dreamt such a thing a few years ago!

  10. Hi Chris, great article,
    I used to be totally on the low/no fat bandwagon for years when I was trying to lose weight, never happened though.
    I also used to have asthma every winter and was told I had lactose intolerance, then I started to use raw milk and I haven’t had asthma since and recently when I had to change my diet due to health problems and went Gluten free, I have Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity. A positive side effect from this change was that I have been loosing weight.

    • In the early 80s when the low fat propaganda was gaining force, the fact that the Japanese were the longest lived on the planet was used as factual support. To check that out I went to the Almanac and there found refuting evidence. The 2nd, 3rd and 4th longest lived people were the Swiss, the Andorrans and the San Marinos. Those are all mountainous dairy heavy cultures. So instead of giving up butter I upped my intake along with whole milk cheese and homemade whole milk yoghurt. I am 72 and still playing soccer. Since then whenever I hear health claims especially those from the medical or food industry I always look for real world evidence. Thousands of years of cultural experience and wisdom surpasses any “scientific” conclusions. For that reason I have been using coconut oil for over 30 years for cooking and skin care. When the restaurant supply houses quit carrying coconut oil, I had to go to the cosmetic section and find coconut oil labeled for skin and hair.

  11. Excellent article. Current National School Lunch Program guidelines ban whole milk dairy products but allow junk food such as Cheetos. Please sign the petition to lift the ban on whole milk dairy products in the NSLP: http://t.co/s0OYgJfPFW

  12. Found it difficult to make the transition as the supermarket shelves are laden with low fat options. Luckily, l have found a place to buy raw milk and can’t have anything else now as it is so delicious. The biggest improvement for me, was in my mental health.

  13. I am unfortunately allergic to casein. I went vegan years ago and when I reintroduced dairy, I felt the effects. I was tested and there it was. No casein allowed! I still eat it occasionally in the form of aged, grass-fed, full fat cheese, but as I’ve adopted the full fat, not processed foods, etc lifestyle, I miss dairy more and more. Sometimes it just satisfies a craving for other foods that I want to avoid.
    And as a former barrista, the more fat, the nicer the foam on the milk. I hated making lattes with non-fat or (ugh!) rice milk. Wimpy foam.

    • You said you are allergic to casein. I’m moderately lactose intolerant, with both ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease. Also my ascending colon was removed 9 years ago.

      I use full fat a 2 milk, which is produced by cows without the problematic a 1 casein gene.

      I recently started to drink 2 glasses of full fat homemade Keifer per day, plus one cup of homemade yogurt. No problems with lactose. Major improvement in cholesterol, blood pressure, weight and bowel movements. Since I do have a history of heart disease, I am concerned about the long term effect of full fat milk. Three stents. I do eat very little red meat. No junk food. Use avocado or coconut oil for cooking. Bought ghee, but it looks pretty gross. Just sits in my fridge.

  14. Great article, Chris. I have been meaning to send an email to our workplace team at my office. They still stock only low- and non-fat milk and yogurt, so this is a great one-stop post with proof.

  15. I never bought into the low-fat, no-fat craze. I think it all tastes like drek. I have always tried to govern my food purchases by asking myself if what I was buying was something that would have been on my grandparents’ table. They were farmers and ate simple, nourishing, basic whole foods. No processed food…period.
    And like a previous commentor, i have trouble finding yougurt that is whole fat…or plain, for that matter.

    • I agree Dee, when I was in USA last year I found it crazy how hard it was just to buy normal yogurt or greek yogurt with full fat. Everything except 1 brand had non fat or low fat!

      Glad that back hear in AUS its a lot easier to find real food 🙂 Full fat yogurt – so tasty!

      • I am in Germany and full fat (10% or 3,5%) yoghurt and plain yoghurt are sold in most shops. But it’s very hard to get raw milk. Luckily, the low fat craze never became that popular and it wasn’t pushed as much by the media.

        • Here in Christchurch, New Zealand I find the supermarkets are stocking full-fat organic yogurt but they are often sold out. It’s as if the demand is increasing but the so-called sophisticated computery isn’t getting the message. A lot of the folksy appearing and other niche alternatives to my favourite brand are actually manufactured by Fonterror who produce 95% of dairy products in New Zealand. These guys are basically scum e.g. for example they have shares in palm oil production companies in Indonesia: read singed orangutans and displaced indigenous people from virgin tropical forests.

  16. I love the low fat craze, it keeps the price of whipping cream down. I have been on a low carb high fat diet for years and I buy almost nothing that says low or reduced fat. It can be hard to find full fat yogurt, but it is there. When I go into the coffee shop and everyone orders lowfat drinks, I order a breve–made with half and half– and at home I use whipping cream in my coffee.

  17. I can’t even find full fat yogurt in my grocery store! So frustrating!! Diet plans like Weight Watchers still heavily promote the use of fay free or low fat dairy. I recommend picking up a fat free half and half and looking at the ingredients. The one I picked up had artificial color, corn syrup, sugar and 10 other ingredients. The full fat one contained only milk and cream.

    • Not sure if you have a Whole Foods near you, but our local store started carried Maple Hill Creamery full-fat plain yogurt. It’s #3 on Cornucopia’s list of all yogurt brands, and it’s not much more expensive than Straus Family Creamery (here in the Bay area). Really good, and super creamy.

      http://cornucopia.org/yogurt-scorecard/

        • I know; it’s SO rich and yummy. Since it sounds like you’re in the Bay Area too, another incredible one to try is Garden Variety sheep yogurt. It’s made by a small artisan goat dairy in the Santa Cruz area. Her sheep feta is raw and excellent too. You can buy both on Goodeggs.com if they deliver to your area (and BTW, Goodeggs is a fantastic company with excellent client service, and I’m only a happy customer, no affiliation).

  18. Assuming normal digestion, does butyrate make it to the colon? I am under the impression it needs to be a fermentation product, produced in the colon.

    I think the yogurt section of the supermarket is a reflection of the opinion of the general public on dairy fat. The overwhelming majority of product is low fat or fat free. More of these products contain refined sugar, in some form, than full fat dairy. That’s what sells.

  19. I have recently been switching over to regular dairy, but I have not noticed any difference yet. I read somewhere that skim milk was better for steaming into lattes/cappuccinos, but it was a non-nutritional recommendation.

    • Low/non-fat milk *expands* more when you steam it because it has less fat content, but whole milk has much better, creamier texture and taste for milk-based espresso drinks.

      I honestly believe that if most people knew how fat-free dairy was made, they wouldn’t drink it. It’s gross. Plus, all the good stuff is in the fat!

      • I recently had to write a short research paper on the “should we drink milk or not drink milk” controversy. It is amazing the amount of “anti-milk” milk propaganda that is being circulated here in the US. I discovered that if an article was published by the USDA, raw milk “BAD” — but there’s lots of good research available that, I think, demonstrates all the wonderful benefits of full fat dairy. Unless and until the US government (i.e., the USDA) gets fully behind the effort of getting the word out to the public, change is going to be very slow and very, very hard!

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