The Debate over Dairy
Full-fat dairy or low-fat dairy?
It seems to be a dividing issue when it comes to nutritionists, dieticians, doctors, and other nutrition experts.
I had heard from different places (news reports, my brother) that whole fat is the way the go. The studies often suggest that people who consume full-fat dairy generally have less problems with obesity and diabetes. However, when my son would go to his pediatrician, because of his BMI, she would often suggest that we switch to 1% or skim milk. Then, when he ended up with high cholesterol, the dietician that we met with at the children’s hospital said to avoid saturated fats, which meant we officially made the switch to 1% in order to follow her guidelines.
During one of our library trips, I stumbled across The Great Cholesterol Myth, which opened my eyes to why we have the ideas that we have about cholesterol and saturated fat, i.e. that these are bad and that they cause heart disease (HINT: the root of these beliefs is due to money, politics, and deceptive research practices–surprise, surprise). Sugar is the real “demon in the diet,” as the authors put it.
This led me to request a bunch of books about sugar, sugar versus fat, and detoxing/quitting sugar. You would think that these books would all agree about dairy, but of all the things they do agree on (i.e. fructose is bad news), they are still divided on dairy. I wondered if that was because of when they were published, if maybe the discoveries about full-fat dairy were more recent and just hadn’t fully spread. Here’s what I found:
The g.i. Diet Cookbook (2005) – favors skim and low-fat dairy
The Sugar Fix (2008) – favors low-fat dairy and says to avoid too much saturated fat
The Sugar Blockers Diet (2012) – appears to encourage full-fat dairy. It’s the only type of dairy listed.
21-day Sugar Detox (2013) – favors full-fat dairy and says no low-fat dairy
I Quit Sugar (2013) – says fat is good and to choose whole fat dairy
The Sugar Smart Diet (2013) – the recipes contain fat-free dairy
100 Days of Real Food (2014) – is for whole fat dairy because it is less processed
Sugar Savvy Solution (2014) – is definitely pro skim milk and nonfat diary
The Great Cholesterol Myth (2015) – is okay with lard but never takes a stance on dairy
The Sugar Detox Plan (2016) – says to avoid most saturated fat and opt for low-fat dairy
Eat Fat, Get Thin (2016) – You would think with this title, the book would be in the full-fat dairy camp, but actually, it says no dairy at all, except for grass-fed butter and lard.
So my hypothesis was wrong. It’s not about dates.
Time to turn to some primary sources.
The following are results from academic journals and are mostly from peer reviewed scholarly journals found by searching a university library database. Just read the blue to skip to my summary of each of the research findings.
- “Effects of High and Low Fat Dairy Food on Cardio-Metabolic Risk Factors: A Meta-Analysis of Randomized Studies” by Benatar, Sidhu, and Stewart, published in PLOS ONE (2013):
In other words, you might gain some weight by eating dairy whether it’s low-fat or whole-fat.
- “The effect of low-fat versus whole-fat dairy product intake on blood pressure and weight in young normotensive adults” by Alonso et al., published in the Journal of Human Nutrition and Dietetics (2009):
The amount of fat in dairy did not affect blood pressure, though the whole-fat dairy did cause some weight gain.
- “Intake of High-Fat Yogurt, but Not of Low-Fat Yogurt or Prebiotics, Is Related to Lower Risk of Depression in Women of the SUN Cohort Study” by Perez-Cornago et al., published in the Journal of Nutrition (2016):
Whole-fat yogurt lowered the women’s risk of depression. (That’s a cool side effect.)
- “Total and Full-Fat, but Not Low-Fat, Dairy Product Intakes are Inversely Associated with Metabolic Syndrome in Adults” by Drehmer et al., published in the Journal of Nutrition (2016):
That’s a mouth full, but basically, more dairy, especially full-fat dairy, decreases the risk for metabolic syndrome, at least in middle-aged and older adults, which goes against the current dietary guidelines.
- “High full fat dairy products intake is associated with increased blood glucose levels among hypertensive people” by Vallianou et al., published in Atherosclerosis Supplements (2011):
So, if you have high blood pressure, full-fat dairy, especially yellow cheeses, could have a negative effect on your blood sugar levels.
- “Dairy Intakes at Age 10 Years Do Not Adversely Affect Risk of Excess Adiposity at 13 Years” by Bigornia et al., published in the Journal of Nutrition (2014):
“Adiposity”–had to look this one up. It refers to being severely overweight or obese. So, although they apparently aren’t totally confident about the results of the study, it showed that full-fat dairy seems to protect against being overweight.
- “Involvement of dietary saturated fats, from all sources or of dairy origin only, in insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes” by Morio et al., published in Nutrition Reviews (2016):
This one also comes to the conclusion that full-fat dairy doesn’t affect risk of diabetes. It does, however, suggest limiting total saturated fat since that might change the effects. The paragraph after this is also very careful to point out that studies that making any sweeping generalizations about a specific part of a food, like saturated fatty acids, shouldn’t be done since other aspects of a particular food could also influence a person’s health.
What do other diets that are considered healthy say?
U.S. News ranked the best diets overall and rated the DASH diet as the healthiest, followed by the Mediterranean diet. The DASH diet clearly states that low-fat dairy is preferred, and the Medterranean diet is focused on limiting saturated fat, suggesting that it is also in favor of low-fat dairy options.
Additional thoughts from across the Internet
Articles saying that full-fat dairy may be good:
- From NPR: The Full-Fat Paradox: Dairy Fat Linked To Lower Diabetes Risk
- From Cooking Light: Low-Fat vs Full-Fat: What Science Now Says About the Dairy You Eat
- From Dr. Weil (known for the anti-inflammatory diet): Rethinking Saturated Fat?
And there are many more. It was actually difficult to find any general website not talking about the recent studies showing benefits for full-fat dairy. Still, the following groups still say you should opt for non-fat or low-fat dairy:
- The United States Department of Agriculture
- The American Heart Association
Full-fat dairy contains more calories, so I think this may be why most of the diet books go for low-fat and nonfat. If you’re trying to sell a diet book, people that try it need to lose weight; otherwise, you won’t sell many books. People are more likely to lose weight if they reduce calories from dairy, so it makes sense.
However, the books that aren’t focused on weight loss and just generally mention that you might lose a few pounds following their way of eating tend to lean towards the full-fat dairy camp. This could explain, too, why the research falls that way as well but admits that it could cause weight gain.
So perhaps a happy compromise would be to use low-fat and nonfat dairy until you get to your goal weight. Then, once weight loss is not a goal, switch over the full-fat stuff. And if weight isn’t an issue for you, go full-fat, baby!
Feel free to share your views on dairy below!
(NOTE: This post contains affiliate links.)