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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. If you have all this evidence suggesting whole milk is better for your health, how come the AHA and all those other health organizations still continue to recommend lowfat or slim milk to everyone?

    • If you are listening to the AHA for health advice then good luck, you will need it

      • Yes, the AHA is not nearly perfect but I think there are many better sources than this site or the AHA.

        For example, excellent sources are the long-living cultures where we can study their diets, activities and social life.

    • read the first paragraph of the article again.
      “Because although we’ve been brainwashed for decades to believe that dairy fat is harmful, recent research overwhelmingly suggests the opposite. “

    • They are wrong! We had my poor husband on a low fat diet for years per doctors orders and because he didn’t want to take a statin – his cholesterol and triglicerides would always be high and he was hungry all the time!! I happened to read the book, Nourishing Traditions by Sally Fallon – she says basically the opposite of what we have been told for years- I realized we had been basically lied to by “health authorities”. We now enjoy REAL food- butter, whole (raw) milk, red meat from farmers etc…. My husband’s cholesterol was down at his last doctors appt. and the doctor was amazed….my cholesterol is a bit higher than it was before, but my hdl level is excellent! They have lied to us about cholesterol too – our bodies and brains NEED it! What burns me up is that when our kids were young I listened to the pediatrician. And gave our girls 2% rather than REAL whole milk!!!!

      • You’re right. Medical science is way behind. Well intentioned, but I have found the exact opposite of their advice is correct. Doctors don’t want to be sued. If they recommend a FDA approve medication, they are protected. If they recommend with other advice, they have a liability. Try talking to you doctor about things you learn on this site. They aren’t interested despite improvement in you annual physical.

        • Sadly, that makes a ton of sense. I hadn’t thought of that angle- just thought it was all money driven by the drug companies. Of course they are trying to protect themselves!

        • Doctors are not trained in nutritional science. I do not know where you get the term medical science and then speak of what doctors tell you. Doctors are in the medical field and focus on pills and operations, basically because that is where the money is.
          Nutritional science is totally different and it is way behind the curve because there is little money in it. NIH spends billions on research but only less than 5% of it is in nutritional research. The people producing and selling whole plant-based products do not have the money to spend on research or marketing.
          The people selling meat, fish, eggs, milk and processed junk have the money for research and marketing. That is what makes the nutrition field confusing, doctors, government and the food industry are not looking out for the long term health of the consumer.
          Worse than those are the Internet gooks talking like they know everything about nutrition…

          • Apart from that doctors education was hi-jacked by big pharma over 70 years ago by generous donations that come to the cost of that same donors were allowed to “donate” also advise about the education and books like “Merck Manual” and how to use it. A great book to diagnose, each diagnose ending in “best possible” treatment usually in the form af pills. Soon gone were also the then recent findings that serious vitamin C deficiency caused scurvy and less serious had bad effects on skin, tissues in general, and also caused easy to break/leak blood vessels. Few today know that Niacin is essential to avoid sunburn, and Beriberi is similar to Chronic fatigue syndrome, helped by Vitamin B1 !
            More about doctor education and in particular “further education” in this recent blog post by Jason Fung: https://intensivedietarymanagement.com/big-pharma-behind-scenes/ . Hence doctors do not only get follow on education by the pharma reps. ! An alternative to Merck Manual summarizing all the symptoms of know vitamin deficiences is badly needed. Then root causes instead of symptom would be treated, often once off by changing to a better diet !
            Also the “great donors” above systematically excluded all naturalistic healing.

  2. But doesn’t whole milk contain more saturated fat, which in term overloads your liver and contain the most cholesterol and calories?

    • I don’t know about that but I’d suspect it’s not true. I’ve been eating a higher fat diet for at least 12 years now (I’m 57 and eat meat and veggies plus coconut, olive, avocado oils- can’t eat grains, soy, rice or most beans) and I’m having no troubles at all with my liver, heart or anything else except my digestive issues. Cholesterol is not necessarily bad, in fact if it’s good quality it’s what keeps your cells and brain healthy. Here are a couple of links that might be useful to you: http://www.cholesterol-and-health.com and http://www.thincs.org/index.htm

  3. hey chris..

    is there any experiment to prove your statement that full fat milk is better.. thenn plz do send mee..

    thankk youu..
    awaitingg ua reply..!!

  4. I went off dairy and gluten for several months per a Naturopath’s recommendation stating that I ‘just don’t digest dairy,’ When I still had trouble conceiving my second child I remembered that I used to consume dairy regular in my first pregnancy – raw goats milk to be exact. I am now back on raw goats milk, making cheese and kefir. I am much closer to maintaining my fertile state and am glad to have dairy back in my life!

  5. However, the synthetic hormones/rbst in milk would be in concentrated in the fat so unless you are sure it’s organic it’s probably actually safer to choose skim milk (if you must have milk). Starbucks certainly doesn’t use organic dairy, so as much as I love half n half in my coffee I will only drink it black there.

  6. My daughter loves dairy products, every morning she eats cheese and drinks milk.

    But my husband is a different story, just the first taste of milk and he throws up. Yet he can drink lots of chocolate milk just fine…

    Good read, great article!

  7. I have had two doctors recently tell me to start drinking fat-free milk. I’ve refused because I believe they are behind the times where dairy and fat are concerned. I personally have a lot more dietary issues when I add grains to my diet than dairy. I try to follow a Paleo/Adkins diet to reduce the amount of GI issues I have.

    Fats, including dairy fats, are not a bad thing. We need a campaign to educate doctors on the benefits of reducing grains and processed foods in our diet and including good fats.

    • Agree completely! I am shocked at how little the mainstream doctors I’ve come across know about nutrition. They are still dolling out “heart healthy grains” and “low fat” advice.

  8. Conflicting reports on various components of so called healthy habits can be confusing. We all have to make a decision though, should we for example trust our health to the like of Esselstyn and his low fat plant only based type diet or should we believe the eat as much free range meat as you like with lots of fat (bar trans fats). My instinct is to trust those that have been pushing nothing other than their impressive results with patients. Those that are not pushing their own brand of supplements nor recruiting for their own private practice. Unless Esselstyn owns a large portion of the plant producing market in the USA I cannot see what his angle is other than wanting to rid us all of heart disease

    • I followed the Forks Over Knives protocol for 2 years and feel that it had a very negative impact on my health. Many of the clinical test cases in the Cleveland Clinic were people who had very serious diseases/conditions, so of course pulling them off of the processed SAD crap was very beneficial. (Probably putting them on plant-based paleo would have been too!) But in my experience, as someone who was not suffering from a serious illness and who was already at optimal weight and eating an organic plant-based diet, the long-term effects of a low fat, low protein diet was a different story. Something that people forget about the China Study, is that many of what they determined were the healthiest cultures, DID consume meat and fat but in moderation — often using it a side dish, condiment or flavoring element, rather than a central part of the meal — an approach that can be very healthy for people who do better with low-moderate protein levels. Some people’s versions of paleo are more plant-based than others — mine is very plant-based (75-80% or more) with moderate protein (15-20% depending upon my daily personal needs. My point is that there are extremes — all-plant like Forks Over Knives and all-protein and fat like an Atkins-type or very low-carb paleo. There may be some exceptions due to specific illnesses or conditions, but for most people a balance somewhere between the two extremes may be the healthiest and sustainable long-term strategy.

    • Eating only a low fat plant based diet will literally starve an individual. I am quite active, to eat that sort of diet alone makes it virtually impossible to maintain my weight. Fat is a much better alternative to high carb and sugary foods for calories. Insulin levels are not spiked due to spikes in glucose from carbs and sugars. Life is truly about moderation, yet quality of life is important as well. Kris makes some very significant points concerning the benefits of fats in our diet.

  9. I love milk (okay truth: I love lattes) and I believe in eating full-fat if I’m having other dairy (yoghurt, butter, cheese).
    BUT! Whole milk always gives me a terrible, terrible stomach ache, whereas skim or 1% does not. What to do? Is the smallish amount of milk it takes to sustain my latte habit okay, as long as everything else I’m eating is whole?

    • Why not? I’m of the opinion that unless your life literally depends on a diet choice (like a peanut allergy) you should be able to have some wiggle room so as to have joy in your life as well as health. I avoid most sugar as much as possible but tonight I’m indulging in a tiny amount of Irish whiskey. Will it kill me? Nope! So I’m going to enjoy it and be happy. I hope you can do the same with your lattes and skim milk.

    • I would try coconut milk (not the lite). Unless you’re using raw cow’s milk, I’d say give up the store bought pasteurized cows milk ASAP. The enzymes are cooked out of it, the cows are raised inhumanely and injected with toxins that get passed on to the consumer.

  10. Chris,I have inflammation in my tendons after knee replacement . What can I do to get rid of it

  11. I am a milk lover and mix raw organic whole milk with raw organic skim milk (1/2 and 1/2). For a number of years I have eaten primarily organic foods except when eating out (perhaps too frequently) and indulging in ice cream (also too frequently). I have very recently discovered that I have significant plaque in my frontal artery (significant enough to have caused angina pressure symptoms on 3 different occasions while exercising). My cholesterol is very high (320), inherited from my father. I am 75 years old and in good shape. My goal is to get rid of the plaque. I am presently taking a host of vitamins and minerals that I’ve taken right along with some variations, but have added red-yeast rice, garlic, arginine, proline, taurine, (and glycine, lysine, and glutamine taken separately), lycopene, vitamin C in liposomal form (I have not taken much C for a few years because it bothered my stomach) and policosanol. I’ve seen research where a low-fat diet has been effective in getting plaque to recede and have switched to a low-fat diet. Any diet or supplement research you can pass on to me that might help me achieve the goal of getting rid of the plaque will be much appreciated..

    • Clarice, if you research just a bit about vitamin k2, best being a subunit called k7, you might just get the answer you are looking for. I ferment my own Natto, which is the highest natural source of vitamin k7 available. Vitamin k7 research has been shown to reduce calicification of coronary arteries by removing the calcium and directing it to the bones, where it belongs. It has also shown that Japanese populations, some who consume it daily, to eliminate osteoporosis. Kris has an excellent article on this and I highly recommend it. God bless and good health to you.

    • Have you ever listened to Sally Fallon’s presentation? “The Oiling of America”. It’s free on YouTube.

      In it, she talks about how high cholesterol is a farse and especially in women, it may actually be protective.

      Consider cutting out all the sugar, any pre made/ processed food, grains, regardless of where you eat. That sugar in the ice cream is not your friend… Whole fat, organic, or whatever.

      • It is worse than that . The other day a metastudy of LDL effect on people over 60 showed no association between high LDL and mortality, on the contrary many of the studies showed a benefit in longevity for those with higher LDL !
        “Lack of an association or an inverse association between low-density-lipoprotein cholesterol and mortality in the elderly: a systematic review” British Medical Journal: http://bmjopen.bmj.com/content/6/6/e010401

        Only small LDL particles that are made when our liver is forced to make triglycerides from by high nutrient intake of carbohydrate dominated food are dangerous. With lots of healthy fats like olive oil, coconut oil, butter, vegetables plus moderate amount of meats without sugar packed barbecue sauces, no overeating and no triglycerides result. And intermittent water fasting for just one or better two days per week will soon remove all dangerous visceral fats built up over years. -For us that are over 60, enabling high fasting blood sugars to fall from often dangerous pre-diabetic levels after too many years of eating too many SAD meals. Reversal was possible for me!

  12. Haven’t touched milk in 30 years, if you’re going to use it, full fat unpasteurized is best if you can find it. If not, don’t use soy milk unless you want to consume excess estrogens, soy is unfit for human consumption.

  13. I agree that the ‘whole’ food is important. So why the rave on the benefits of whey protein isolate or concentrate?? All fat is removed. How is this beneficial???

  14. I have always used full cream milk and dairy products.
    About twenty years ago, while on holiday, I bought my seventeen year old daughter a small bottle of 2% milk after she asked for milk.
    She got so upset with the “STUFF” I bought her that she did not talk to me the rest of the day.
    I started reading about low fat products, and agree with her description.
    I love coffee too, but please not the chemical caffeine free stuff.

  15. Argo Tea doesn’t even have whole milk, only skim and 2%. Company wide policy has been so negatively influenced by poor health knowledge.

  16. I was raised on a farm, drank raw whole milk from our cows, deployed cream on my cereal when it didn’t go up to the big house, and swam in ice cream.

    I’m 81, healthy, and gag when I put even low-fat milk on my cereal: it simply is too rich to tolerate — a bit like putting butter on an ice cream cone.

    I have no problem with whole milk that’s been cleanly dairied; go for it. But at my age, taste is important too.

  17. I am more concerned about the chemicals and pharmaceuticals carried more easily in the fat of dairy. Can anyone speak to this concern?

  18. Thanks to Peter Attia i switched to full fat heavy cream when visiting places like Petes. growing up in the fat phobic era rhis was difficult but he convinced me to try it. Not only did i not get fat but i felt amazing. Thanks Chris for revisiting this issue! Fat is the best part! If using unorganic meat products i still choose leaner cuts due to toxins hiding in the fatty parts of he cut.

  19. I no longer eat low-fat dairy. I don’t care for milk, so I drink keifer and soy milk. I do enjoy cheese a great deal. I admit I so completely absorbed the low-fat story for so long, some degree of incredulity and a bit of guilt still remain! But the benefits of going wheat free have been so great that I won’t go back to the high-grain, low-fat diet I got fat on.