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April 29, 2019 / Nicole Villeneuve

The Dairy Dilemma: Fat Free vs Full Fat?

Peanut butter berry yogurt parfaits

You may have heard the phrase “healthy fats” thrown around in conversations about nutritious eating. It’s usually accompanied by a recommendation for nuts, avocados, olive oil, etc.

Yet when we reach the dairy aisle, often our gut impulse is to reach for the reduced fat milk, cheese, and yogurt.

While low-fat or fat-free dairy may seem like the obvious choice for a healthy diet, the truth is a bit more complicated. In fact, despite what you may have grown up hearing, consuming full-fat dairy products can actually help you lose weight. So before you reach for the fat-free option, consider the nutritional differences.

The Fat-Free Myth

For years, the USDA recommended a low-fat diet as a way to support heart health. It was believed that the saturated fats in full-fat dairy led to higher cholesterol, and in turn, to higher rates of heart disease. However, there was no real evidence to support this claim, and over time, new research has begun to disprove this supposed link.

Another popular misconception about fat is that it contributes to higher rates of obesity. A 2013 study in the European Journal of Nutrition found the opposite to be true. Their research revealed that consuming high-fat dairy products as part of a regular diet actually had an inverse correlation with risk for obesity. In addition, they discovered no evidence that eating full-fat dairy products led to increased risk of diabetes, heart disease, or stroke, either.

Benefits of Full-Fat Dairy

So as it turns out, dairy fat isn’t actually bad for you. But what makes it good for you?

Full-fat dairy helps with weight loss

A 2016 study found that eating high-fat dairy products--and not eating reduced fat ones--can help prevent weight gain. This is likely connected to the fact that full-fat dairy products are extremely satiating, which means they can lessen cravings and reduce the overall number of calories we eat in a day. While fat-free options generally contain fewer calories, it has a higher proportion of dairy sugars (like lactose), and you'll typically eat more of it.

Full-fat dairy has a lower glycemic load

The extra fat in full-fat dairy helps to slow our body’s absorption of the sugars in milk, which leads to a more gradual rise and fall in blood sugar. This explains why skim milk has a higher glycemic index number than whole milk. Without that extra fat, the milk sugar from skim milk hits your bloodstream much faster, causing a steeper spike. (For more info on this, read our introduction to the glycemic index!)

Full-fat dairy supports heart health

A cup of whole milk has about 183 mg of Omega-3 fatty acids, which are great for heart health, whereas a cup of skim milk has only 2.5 mg. Eating full-fat cheese can also reduce the risk of heart disease, because the fats increase the good kind of cholesterol, known as HDL. Still debating fat free vs full fat dairy? Ask your doctor; she'll be able to give you more personalized recommendations.

Nicole Villeneuve

Nicole Villeneuve is a certified Diabetes Prevention Lifestyle Coach. A graduate of Yale University, she previously worked in book publishing, with a focus on cookbooks and health, and ran the food blog Paper and Salt. Her writing has been featured in Bon Appetit, Food & Wine, The New York Times Magazine, The Paris Review, and The Daily Beast. Nicole lives in San Francisco and loves cooking, reading, exploring new restaurants, and running by the ocean. You can (very occasionally) find her on Twitter.

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