For those of us who grew up learning about the USDA’s food pyramid in school, it seems like a no-brainer that low-fat dairy is superior to the whole-fat variety. But in reality, the debate over which milk is healthiest is just getting started.
Milk It: A Brief History
Up until World War II, the concept of skim or low-fat milk would have been completely foreign to Americans. People liked their milk whole (preferably with cream on top). But around the middle of the 20th century, the medical establishment began to caution Americans away from foods containing saturated fats on the grounds that they might contribute to heart disease.
And so began a low-fat dairy craze that has continued into the present day. Between 1975 and 2014, sales of whole fat milk plummeted by 61 percent while skim milk sales increased by a whopping 156 percent.
But even as Americans have hopped on the skim milk bandwagon, nutritionists and medical researchers have begun to champion a return to whole milk. Recent research argues that whole-fat dairy is superior to skim in a number of ways — even for people who are looking to drop some weight.
So which milk wins out in the battle of no versus whole fat? Let’s take a look at where things shake out.
The Case for Skim Milk
It’s easy to see why federal guidelines and nutritionists initially climbed aboard the fat-free milk train. Skim milk has fewer calories than whole milk (approximately 90 calories per cup versus 150 calories per cup), and it provides the same amount of protein and calcium. For anyone who’s following a strict “calories in vs. calories out” approach to weight maintenance, switching from whole milk to skim can be an easy way to skimp on calories while still gaining many of milk’s benefits.
Skim milk is also lower in saturated fat, which has long been labeled a contributing factor to diseases such as heart disease and diabetes. (But as we’ll soon see, this may not be the case when it comes to the saturated fats in milk.) For these reasons, federal dietary guidelines continue to advocate for the consumption of low- and no-fat milk products in lieu of full-fat.
The Resurgence of Whole Milk
Yet in spite of skim milk’s apparent benefits, a growing body of research suggests that whole milk has an upside.
One much-touted review published in the European Journal of Nutrition looked at 25 studies comparing whole and low-fat dairy. The review’s authors found that, in 18 of those studies, participants who consumed whole-fat dairy products reported lower body weights, less weight gain, and/or a lower risk of obesity. (The other seven studies were considered inconclusive.) They also found insufficient evidence to back up the claim that whole-fat dairy contributes to diabetes or heart disease.
This review came on the heels of a 2014 study, which found that consuming whole-fat milk products reduces the risk of obesity (especially abdominal obesity). And prior to that, a 2013 study found that participants who regularly ate full-fat milk, butter and cream demonstrated lower obesity rates than participants who consumed low-fat dairy products.
It might seem counterintuitive that eating more fat would lead to less fat gain. Indeed, researchers are still trying to sort out why full-fat dairy products are linked to lower rates of weight gain and obesity. One theory is that whole milk is more filling than skim, meaning people who consume it may feel fuller longer and consequently eat less throughout the day.
This also helps explain why some nutrition experts are starting to steer people away from skim milk. Because skim is less satiating, people who consume it may find that their appetite for refined carbs and sugars increases, says Dr. Drew Ramsey, author of the forthcoming Eat Complete. Studies have found that when saturated fat is replaced with carbohydrate consumption, a person’s risk for diabetes, obesity and unhealthy cholesterol levels increases. This means that avoiding saturated fat in dairy may be counter-productive for anyone looking to improve their health.
Whole Milk: The Whole Story
In fact, the saturated fats found in whole milk may actually do us more good than harm. Whole milk fat may help people absorb the fat-soluble vitamins present in milk, which include vitamins A, D, E and K. And several studies have found that the saturated fat in whole milk doesn’t appear to increase the risk of heart disease.
“Many eaters have been given the message that fat is a pathway to diabetes and heart disease, but that’s simply not the case,” says Dr. Ramsey. In fact, “Fats are essential for human health,” he says. “Your brain is 60 percent fat. Your cells are surrounded by fat. The low-fat movement is simply based on bad science.”
Indeed, the benefits of whole milk extend beyond satiation and vitamin absorption. Some studies have shown that drinking whole milk may help reduce the risk of heart disease, diabetes and some cancers (including bowel cancer and colon cancer). Whole milk also can be beneficial for those looking to gain muscle. Research suggests that consuming whole milk after a workout boosts muscle growth at a greater rate than no-fat milk.
Glass Half Full: The Takeaway
Higher calorie count aside, whole milk is stacking up to be a healthier choice than skim. If you want to up the health factor even more, choose organic whole milk, which contains the highest levels of good-for-you omega-3 fatty acids. Dr. Ramsey also recommends grass-fed milk products, which are linked to an even lower risk of heart disease.
Of course, none of this is to say that whole milk’s health benefits warrant excessive consumption. As with so many health foods, whole-fat dairy is best consumed in moderation. (Consider these 7 Portion Rules for High-Fat Foods.) So go ahead, pour yourself a tall glass of whole milk — but maybe stick to the one cup.