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The Buzz: Full-Fat Dairy

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What’s the buzz? Skim milk is out — and cream-top yogurts and whole-milk lattes are in. What does the science say?

As full-fat dairy products elbow out their skim (but often high-sugar) counterparts from grocery store shelves, it might look like changing times for the dairy industry. Low-fat dairy products have long been recommended on the premise that doing so reduces the saturated fat in one’s diet and therefore reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and even weight gain. However, some research over the last few years suggests that dairy fat may not be as bad for us as we once thought. In fact, full-fat dairy may even help with weight management, because fat can help with satiety, keeping you from eating more later. Full-fat dairy, particularly milk and yogurt, also appears to improve fertility in women, due to the way the fat in dairy can affect hormones.  

Recently, some research has also suggested that there may be less of a connection between dairy fat and cardiovascular disease, while other research still links them. (Confused yet?!) Differences in how the studies were designed and how they define full-fat dairy (is it just whole-milk dairy products, or are mixed dishes like pizza — and its other toppings — included?) make determining the connection between dairy fat and weight, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes difficult, which is part of the reason for the confusion. Bias from studies conducted by the dairy industry also muddy the already murky water.

That said, the connection between saturated fat (the primary fat found in dairy) and cardiovascular disease is still strong. What’s frequently omitted in the discussion is the problem of what’s replacing dairy fat — often sugar or refined carbohydrates. For example, replacing a full-fat yogurt with a flavored, high-sugar, yet fat-free yogurt, or a cup of whole milk with a skim chocolate milk, doesn’t provide any nutritional benefits and introduces more sugar into the diet, which has been tied to many health concerns. However, replacing full-fat cheese with avocado or hummus on a sandwich, both of which provide heart-healthy unsaturated fats, are beneficial swaps.

What’s the takeaway?

Dairy fat contains saturated fat, which should be limited to a total of 5 to 7 percent of total calories (about 11-15 grams for the average person). But replacing full-fat dairy with high-sugar, low-fat options is not the answer. Instead, prioritize plant-based fats such as nuts, seeds, and olive oil. A healthy diet can include a small amount of plain full-fat yogurt, a sprinkle of cheese, or even the occasional dish of real ice cream (yes, really!) as long as you pay attention to your total saturated fat (and calorie) limits.

Read more about dairy fat here.