Skim or whole milk? Fat-free or creamy yogurt? For decades, you heard the message “fat will make you fat,” so these dairy decisions were considered no-brainers. Fat-free dairy products promised fewer calories while still packing protein and calcium. While it seemed like a win-win, the research is evolving, and now fat is back in a big way, making the decision more complicated than ever. Here’s what to keep in mind, the next time you’re grabbing a gallon from the dairy case.
Not All Fats Are Equal
Fat is an essential macronutrient, and you can’t live without it. But not all types of fat are created equal. In recent years, the confusion around types of fat has grown, with headlines screaming “butter is back!” Universally accepted: avoid trans-fats, found in foods that contain partially hydrogenated oils, such as margarine, baked goods like cakes or cookies, and packaged foods like crackers or popcorn, which can increase your cholesterol, raise inflammation, and up your risk for heart disease. Focus on mono- and polyunsaturated fats, found in fatty fish, plant-based oils, nuts, and seeds, which can lower cholesterol levels and reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease. But saturated fat, found in butter, meat, and dairy, is not quite as clear cut. While it may not be as bad as researchers previously thought, it does not appear to have any health benefits, either.
The Dairy Debate
The skinny on dairy is that you’re getting some good with the maybe not so bad. Fact: All milk contains both saturated and unsaturated fats. A glass (8 fl oz/250 ml) of whole milk contains 8 grams of total fat, 4.6 of which are saturated (just a little more than half). Compare that to a glass of 1 percent milk, which has 2.4 grams of total fat and 1.5 grams of saturated fat, or a glass of skim milk, which has only 0.2 grams of total fat. If you just look at the numbers, you still might grab skim. But there are other benefits to keep in mind. A review published in the European Journal of Nutrition found people who eat full-fat dairy are no more likely to wind up with type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Another study found that individuals who eat full-fat dairy tend to be leaner. This could be because fat is satiating, so adding even a little bit to your meals can make you feel fuller faster.
Don’t Swap Fat for Sugar
The other issue with a skinny latte is that you always want to compensate with a pump of syrup, right? That’s because fat lends flavor. When food companies started to remove the fat from foods and drinks, they had to add something else to make them taste good. Enter sugar. If you look at the labels for many nonfat products, like sweetened yogurt, you’ll see they contain more sugar than their full-fat counterparts. Of course, research now confirms that added sugars and refined carbs may be even worse for your health. So low-fat and full-fat dairy products, with better taste, texture, and mouthfeel, can be more satisfying than eating a product that’s stripped of fat and laced with sweeteners.
Which Milk to Choose
It’s a lot to drink in. But ultimately, when you’re deciding whether to choose full-fat, low-fat, or fat-free dairy, it all depends on what else you’re eating. Here’s how to think about it:
- If you’re really not eating much fat (at all!), then consider indulging in full-fat dairy, which can help you to feel satisfied and full.
- If you’re eating a balanced diet with plenty of healthy plant fats, then go for low-fat dairy, because it probably won’t make a big difference, one way or the other.
- If you eat a lot of animal products, like red meat and butter, then your diet is already high in saturated fat, and you don’t want to add any more. In this case, stick with fat-free dairy.
The bottom line: Figure out how dairy fits into your overall diet. Saturated fat may not be as bad for you as experts initially thought, but that doesn’t give you a free pass to gorge yourself on butter and cream. Focus on healthy plant fats first, enjoying plenty of unsaturated fats such as extra-virgin olive oil, avocados, nuts, and seeds. And whatever you decide in the dairy aisle, avoid added sugars.
This information is for educational purposes only and is not intended as a substitute for medical diagnosis or treatment. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat a health problem or condition. Always check with your doctor before changing your diet, altering your sleep habits, taking supplements, or starting a new fitness routine.