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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. Thanks for this great post Chris…and all you do to help dispel “tragic” real-food myths in America! When getting a coffee at a coffee shop I always ask for the pourable heavy cream that they keep in the fridge behind the counter…makes my Americano just right! Also, for all you “fat-o-philes” please visit my blog and learn how to render your very own duck fat! Thanks for letting me share Chris! http://www.chefshanekelly.com/2014/12/rendering-duck-fat-other-duck-delights/

  2. The declining health and nutrition of our citizens – particularly our children – is currently a major economic and therefore, security risk for our country. Sugar is widely identified as the most destructive culprit. Did you know that as a parent, if you would like for your child to be served organic, whole milk at a USDA participating school, that you are out of luck? Even with a doctor’s note? If your child attends a school or center participating in the USDA Food Program, their mandated choice is non-fat or 1% conventional milk, with possibly up to 15g of added sugar (in the form of low-fat chocolate milk). This is all mandated by an Act of Congress (true story).

    Please contact your congressional representatives today to have the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 amended to allow the serving of whole milk and to place parameters on the amount of added sugar allowed in school milk (and all foods) served! Or to, at the very least, allow parents and doctors the right to choose the healthier option.

    Find your representatives here: http://www.contactingthecongress.org/

    • Excellent post, Amy…thank you! I did not know this but I will quote this in my new book on Kids Health!

      • I never realised what an insidious thing school lunches are. Is there an opt-out available for parents in these countries that provide school lunches? Our schools in New Zealand often push the message that water is enough. Certainly that’s all that was provided for us when I was at school.

        • It’s very sad that in the U.S. today, the
          “land of the plenty” school lunch is possibly the only meal that some children will have on any given day. Sadly, poor quality food is better than no food at all. There are now millions of children going hungry daily in the U.S. amidst all the riches and wastefulness. I agree that something needs to be done about quality of school lunches, but water only is just not a good option.

        • Water would certainly be preferable to skim or 1%. Unfortunately, many parents buy into the same poor, outdated, 1970’s science that the government promotes, and they compound the problem at home. Fat is extremely important for growing children.

  3. Lots of good posts/insights on this subject. As a 50 yo female who watches her diet closely and exercises regularly, I was a little shocked to see my triglycerides rise last check up. My
    Mother has the beginnings of heart disease, as well. Does anyone respond to the posts in this thread? High fat, coffee, grains… all very confusing. It would be helpful to hear some more definitive answers to these questions. Thanks!

    • Treating cardiovascular disease is easier when you know what the culprit is. It’s all inflammation. Avoid processed vegetable oils such as canola, corn and soy oils, avoid processed sugars. Eat high quality proteins and fats, especially fats, avoid fish or krill oil, these contain derivatives. You need lots of 18 carbon Omega-6 from plant sources ( or animals that eat their natural plant diet, NOT grain-fed), every day. You will immediately notice better skin, which reflects better health. There is no Omega-3 in your arteries, it is not nearly as important as Omega-6. It’s all in the biochemistry. References can be provided.

      • Avoid Krill oil and Omega 3 in favour of Omega 6, I would value Chris’s opinion on this. My understanding is that our diets have become far too biased in favour of Omega 6. Krill oil also seems one of the purest Omega 3 sources being low in the food chain and preserved by Astxanthin

    • Check out the Weston A. Price Foundation site. They promote traditional nutrition and have lots of information on their website. I’m sure you’ll find plenty of helpful information there.

  4. Through extensive reading the past two years from sources such as yourself and others, I began to understand the importance of protein and dietary fat from clean, quality sources and now consume raw cows milk (or organic coconut milk) and organic kefir daily as my primary sources of dietary fat.

  5. I consume a full-fat, ultra low-carb Ketogenic diet, following the Carb Nite Solution. I’m quite happy with it and find it very satiating. Even when I am hungry without access to food, I’m not evil and hangry like I used to be!

  6. I’m very disappointed that there is no mention in this article concerning the difference between raw dairy products and those made from pasteurized milk. Also no mention about what kind of animals the dairy is obtained from (grass-fed vs grain-fed). If you are consuming pasteurized full-fat dairy products coming from grain-fed animals raised in the typical food factories (where animals are herded closely together in confined spaces with little or no access to the outdoors), you are NOT doing yourself any favors. In fact, this type of diet is very unhealthy!

    Chris, you know better than this!

  7. Chris, what are your thoughts regarding those with fatty livers and high triglyceride levels. Is it advisable to eat full saturated fats in your diet?

    • You can eat full fats ONLY if you limit or eliminate added sugars and grains from your diet. Read two books: Dr. David Perlmutter’s “Grain Brain” and Dr William Davis,”Wheat Belly” it will total enlighten you. High triglycerides will be a thing of the past once you become grain free and for all practical purposes added sugar free. Focus your energy on whole foods only – limit fruits to 15 grams a day max. You can do this and will feel marvelous.

    • Regarding high triglycerides, what I’ve read indicates sugar is the culprit. Take a look at Gary Taubes, “Why we get fat.”

  8. My wife is extremely “Health Food Conscious,” which has resulted in meals of leaves and twigs and branches. We also have volumes of low-fat, no-fat dairy products in our fridge. I’m happy to see this article reporting on studies which counter this trend in our home. The surprising fact here is, she actually sent me this article.

    So, my question to her is, “Do we now switch to foods I have enjoyed all my life?” As someone who is medicated for high B/P, Cholesterol, and Triglycerides I have been very conscious of what I eat in terms of fat. Who knew I was actually eating unhealthy by a diet of low fat everything? Happily, I think we will change our diet as a result of this article and the documentation included. When I went on a “High Protein Diet” for six months, my numbers were so dramatically lower, when my Doctor called to tell me what they were I asked him if he was reading someone else’s test results.

  9. I wouldn’t even think about consuming lowfat dairy except that I know i have a copy of the ApoE4 gene. I used to consume lots of homemade raw full fat yogurt, butter, and cream (along with more fattier meats and more eggs) until I found out I had the gene… I cut my animal fat down and my clolesterol numbers became more “acceptable”. Should I even care about the numbers? I love full fat dairy but got scared of it again after learning of my ApoE status.

      • Thanks for that link. I haven’t seen that one, but I have seen others and the one thing that I can’t seem to get from them is anyone with a perspective of both health/longevity AND exercise/performance/fat loss. That’s the blend of info I need.

    • Stop tracking your cholesterol number, it is not important, we don’t have a cholesterol sensor, the absolute number is unimportant. Go by how you feel, energy level, sleep and skin health. Those are the best indicators of health.

  10. Chris, thanks again for the excellent article. I am a long time fan of whole milk dairy, especially cheeses and yogurts. But as the father of two elementary school-age children, I am saddened that my childrens’ lunch milk options are limited to plain low-fat milk or chocolate low-fat milk. (Local school districts usually follow the National School Lunch Program nutritional guidelines.) Please sign the petition to lift the ban on whole milk dairy products in the NSLP: http://tinyurl.com/mu3bkyj Bring back the fat!

  11. I thought the problem with any milk that is homogenized is that the fat gobules are so small they pass directly into the blood stream, bypassing digestion, and causing placque, etc. Unhomogenized milk fat remains in the gut and can be digested properly with enzymes into smaller units that are assimilated by the body. I’ve drawn blood on people shortly after drinking homogenized milk and their blood is full of milk fat. Your thoughts on this, Chris, as homogenization seems to be the problem, not whether it’s pasturized or raw.

    • I’ve drawn lipemic blood too and been informed that it is triglycerides that cause the plasma to appear milky.

    • SPH that’s concerning, first I’ve read about this. So one could reasonably assume that if consuming homogenised milk that it would be better to drink low-fat or skim milk instead of full fat milk, in order to avoid some or all plaque build up on the arteries? Or is this just buying into the full-fat / heart disease theory? Thoughts? Chris? My body only tolerates A2 milk these days which is only available as homogenised and pasteurised. Raw milk is not legal in Australia, and I would not consider purchasing on the black market until the law changes.

    • Risks are inherent in all foods no matter how careful we are. I believe the fears over raw milk are highly over rated when ingested by otherwise healthy people. From this site: http://chriskresser.com/raw-milk-reality-is-raw-milk-dangerous
      However- no one should risk their health by following someone else’s recommendation without doing their research! If you don’t feel raw milk is safe don’t drink it!

    • While the death of a toddler is tragic, there is nothing in that article to link the death to raw milk, other than the fact that “somebody apparently said so.” If I ever find myself in that part of Australia, I will totally drink some black market raw milk. Thanks for the heads up!

  12. Chris, it’s worse than other people ordering blecherous low-fat / non-fat dairy for their coffee — there are many eateries you cannot even get full-fat products when you want them. As the parent of toddlers this is very disappointing to me, and we usually end up giving them the low-fat milk or low-fat yogurt rather than having them go without.

    My wife is a little less yay-rah-rah about all this ancestral health nutrition stuff than I am, and it doesn’t seem to me to be a huge enough issue to battle about. She does support full-fat grass-fed dairy at home, and the occasional failure to get it when we’re out falls pretty firmly in the 20 of the 80/20 rule. Still, it is very irritating to me that we can’t get full fat milk at a restaurant like Friendly (a casual dining restaurant chain in the USA known mainly for their ice cream). Ironically they cite health-conscious consumers as the reason for this. COME ON, you’re a freaking burger-and-ice-cream chain. Health-consciousness is not really a prime motivator of your clientele.

  13. Butteroil, can someone measure the amount of vitamin K2 in butteroil? I make butteroil for myself from Jersay cows eating only grass (30-40 different kinds of grass from May 1 to the end of June). I get 5-6 ounces of raw unheated butteroil from one pound of butter (very bright yellow). There is approximately 7-8 ounces of butter wax in one pound of butter and approximately 3 ounces of milk solids. Why do I make my own butteroil? I purchased a jar of butteroil from GP and it tasted like wax and was almost white. I put it through my process and found it had a large percentage of butter wax and not much oil. Has anyone checked the amount of vitamin K2 in butter oil? In my area I can buy raw butter for $7.00/pound. If lactose isn’t a problem, three spoons of raw spring butter is the same as one spoon of butter oil.

  14. I just forwarded this to my husband in hopes that he will stop buying lowfat yogurt. I cannot seem to tolerate any dairy, but I’ve been giving my kids full fat milk and full fat Straus yogurt. My question is, can you get all the benefits listed above from pasteurized (organic and grass fed) milk, or does it need to be raw to get those benefits? I realize raw is better, but it is very hard to find raw where I live. I’ve considered taking my kids off of milk, but your article seems to suggest that if they can tolerate it, they can really benefit from full fat dairy even if it is pasteurized. Is that correct? As always, I so appreciate your articles, Chris!

    • Jenny, I peaked at two of the cited studies and they don’t even mention grass or grain fed. You can very confidently assume that they did not use raw milk. Good odds there was a lot of grain-fed in those numbers, stick with the grass-fed and you are stacking the deck in your favor.

  15. Hi Chris, can you tell me if this full fat argument is only meant to be a valid point in favor of organic and/or raw dairy products? (ie, still avoid dairy if it’s not organic/raw even if it is full fat?). Do the benefits of it being full fat milk outweigh all the growth hormones, antibiotics, pus, etc that most commercial milks will contain?

    I’ve also always been curious about Pottenger’s Cats? Is that study valid for human comparisons and therefore any pasteurized milk products should be avoided anyway regardless of their fat status?

    If the alternative is to only consume raw dairy, then should people who have weak immune systems be more careful due to pathogens that will exist in raw dairy (because unless you are sucking the milk directly out of the teat of a healthy cow, you will have some level of pathogens in your raw dairy).

    Also should people with a “struggling” liver or gallbladder be wary of consuming these extra milk fats?

    • Pottenger’s cat experiments were certainly interesting, but they don’t necessarily apply to humans. Cats are carnivores, humans are omnivores, after all. Also, at least one substance (Taurine) has been identified that was in the raw diets of cats that was not in the cooked diet, and cats can’t synthesize Taurine, but humans can. Personally, I still eat cooked meat and will use pasturized dairy, but I do incorporate more raw animal foods into my diet- lots of raw milk, and I am experimenting with raw oysters and eggs as well.

    • Actually raw dairy has built in antibodies and is known to kill pathogens. Any pathogens that have been associated with raw milk are those deposited there after the milking, from dairy’s that aren’t certified as “clean.”

  16. Chris, I am with you as far as the full-fat is concerned….BUT…as a nutrition specialist, I find it puzzling that you did not add the caveat of ensuring that, if one chooses to include milk-food products in her/his lifestyle, the dairy source be organic, grass-fed and, of course, subsequently, antibiotic- and added- hormone-free as well as free from chemical fertilizers and pesticides.

  17. I personally went from Almond milk and coconut milk to Raw whole milk (from grass fed cows) when i do drink milk that is what i get. I like it better than regular whole milk probably just knowing that its healthier 🙂

    • raw milk ? bs , do you know what you are buying ?
      this stuff is not available to 99 999999 ,% of us

      • If you seek, you shall find. And yes, we know what we’re buying. Milk that still contains the enzymes required to break down the food.
        It is much better than the garbage they give your store bought-GMO corn/soy fed- antibiotic-injected-artificial growth hormone CAFO (concentrated animal feeding operation) cows. With this kind of “milk”, the enzymes are COOKED out of it and your body has to do all the work to break it down.

        • Some industries pay trolls to search for these kinds of discussions on websites and make comments similar to Wolfgang’s.

          • Yes, thank you Honora. I’m well aware of this unethical (and perhaps criminal) practice. In reading his/her dribble, this person is rather obvious. He/she should probably be demoted.
            My comment was more directed to anyone gullible enough to be swayed by the BS.
            If critical mass is not achieved regarding real health knowledge, we may lose more health freedoms.