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Is Whole Milk Dairy Better Than Low Fat?

Whole Milk Dairy

Story at-a-glance -

  • People who eat full-fat dairy may have a lower risk of heart disease, cancer, type 2 diabetes, and obesity than those who eat low-fat dairy
  • When you replace saturated fat with refined carbohydrates, you exacerbate insulin resistance and obesity
  • There is no conclusive proof that a low-fat diet has any positive effects on health

By Dr. Mercola

Are you still eating low-fat or no-fat dairy products? If you are, you probably think you’re doing the right thing for your health. And if you check with virtually any public health agency, they’d wholeheartedly agree.

The American Heart Association, American Diabetes Association, and American Cancer Society, for instance, all recommend low-fat or no-fat dairy. The US Department of Agriculture, in their nutrition guidelines for Americans, also advises, Dairy Group choices should be fat-free or low-fat.”1

So what’s the problem? The advice to eat low-fat foods, including dairy, is antiquated, at least back to the 1970s, when low-fat diets were first recommended.

It’s also not scientifically supported, and if you’re choosing low-fat over full-fat, not only are you missing out on taste, flavor and satisfaction, but you’re missing out on valuable benefits to your health – benefits that come from eating full-fat foods.

Skim Milk Was Once Considered ‘Hog Slop’

While you’ve probably become accustomed to seeing skim milk, 1 percent, 2 percent, and whole when purchasing milk, keep in mind that it wasn’t always this way. Prior to World War II, skim milk was not sold in stores, but rather thrown away or used as feed for chickens, hogs and calves.

During World War II, dried milk powder became a preferred relief food, with the government asking U.S. dairies to produce 200 million pounds of dry skim milk powder for America’s allies.

When the war ended, however, a new marketing strategy was necessary. As written in the book "Pure and Modern Milk: An Environmental History Since 1900" by Kendra Smith-Howard:2

The development of skim milk as an attractive product for sale only came about because dairy producers, emboldened by their success selling milk to Uncle Sam during World War II, seized on postwar marketing opportunities to sell what once had been hog slop to housewives and families.”

From Byproduct to Weight-Loss Sensation

While milk was once marketed as a wholesome food for children, the industry capitalized on growing weight-gain concerns among Americans, and began marketing it as a diet food. Smith-Howard writes:3

As prices for whole milk increased in the late 1940s, milk dealers in the fluid milk market, as well as dried milk dealers, turned to skim milk as a promising product in its own right.

Though many consumers were skeptical about the value of skim milk, dairy companies enticed them with promises that drinking skim milk would help them lose weight.

Milk dealers secured the backing of physicians. As had been the case for certified and pasteurized milk in the Progressive Era, the recommendations of physicians gave skim milk newfound legitimacy.

Although physicians had long suggested nonfat milk to patients who had difficulty digesting fats or were elderly, weight-conscious consumers became the largest sector of the skim milk market in the 1950s.

Emphasizing skim milk’s role in promoting slenderness transformed skim milk’s reputation as a low-cost relief food to one that high-income dieters would embrace.”

Meanwhile, in 1953 University of Minnesota professor Ancel Keys published a flawed and cherry-picked paper that serves as the basis for nearly all of the initial scientific support for the Cholesterol Theory (the notion that eating saturated fat raises your cholesterol levels and leads to heart disease).

The nutrition community of that time completely accepted the hypothesis, and encouraged the public to cut out butter, red meat, animal fats, eggs, dairy and other "artery clogging" fats from their diets, a radical change at that time that is still very much in force today.

Accumulating research is showing, however, that this switch to low-fat has not only caused rates of chronic disease to skyrocket; it’s also been making people fat.

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The Case for Full-Fat Dairy

A study published in the European Journal of Nutrition looked at the relationship between the consumption of dairy fat and high-fat dairy foods, obesity, and cardiometabolic disease.4

Those who ate full-fat dairy were no more likely to develop heart disease or type 2 diabetes than those who ate low-fat dairy. Further, those who ate full-fat dairy were less likely to be obese.

According to the researchers:

“The observational evidence does not support the hypothesis that dairy fat or high-fat dairy foods contribute to obesity or cardiometabolic risk, and suggests that high-fat dairy consumption within typical dietary patterns is inversely associated with obesity risk.”

A separate study similarly found that low intake of dairy fat (no butter and low-fat milk and seldom/never whipping cream) was associated with a higher risk of developing central obesity while a high intake of dairy fat (butter, high-fat milk and whipping cream) was associated with a lower risk of central obesity.5

Still more research showed women who ate at least one serving of full-fat dairy a day gained 30 percent less weight over a nine-year period than women who ate only low-fat (or no) dairy products.6 In addition to weight benefits, previous studies have also shown that consuming full-fat dairy may help reduce your risk of:

  • Cancer: Conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), a type of fat found naturally in cow's milk, significantly lowers the risk of cancer. In one study, those who ate at least four servings of high-fat dairy foods each day had a 41 percent lower risk of bowel cancer than those who ate less than one.7 Each increment of two servings of dairy products reduced a woman’s colon cancer risk by 13 percent.
  • Heart Disease: People who ate the most full-fat dairy were less likely to die from cardiovascular disease, according to a 16-year study of Australian adults.8
  • Type 2 Diabetes: People who ate eight portions of full-fat dairy products a day cut their risk of diabetes by nearly 25 percent compared to those who ate fewer portions.9

Omega-3 Fats Reduce Inflammation, Offer Heart Protection

When referring to healthy fats, it’s not only those in organic, full-fat pastured raw dairy that are beneficial. Your body needs many types of fat to function properly, so you’ll want to let go of the notion that a low-fat diet is healthy. The fats you want to avoid are synthetic fats, such as trans fats, or rancid omega-6 polyunsaturated fats (PUFAs), such as those found in vegetable oils.

Eating too much damaged omega-6 fat and too little beneficial omega-3 sets the stage for the very health problems you seek to avoid, including cardiovascular disease, cancer, depression and Alzheimer's, rheumatoid arthritis, and diabetes, just to name a few. Most people, especially Americans, are guilty of this lopsided omega-3 to omega-6 ratio, and to correct it, you typically need to do two things:

  1. Significantly decrease omega-6 by avoiding processed foods and foods cooked at high temperatures using vegetable oils
  2. Increase your intake of heart-healthy animal-based omega-3 fats, such as krill oil

Research presented at the American College of Cardiology's 64th Annual Scientific Session in San Diego, CA, for instance, found that taking a high-dose omega-3 fat supplement (in this case 4 grams daily for six months) was highly beneficial for people who had suffered a heart attack. Those taking the omega-3 had lower levels of inflammation as well as improved cardiac structure and heart functioning compared to those taking a placebo.10

Both omega-3 and omega-6 fats are PUFAs and they're both essential to your health, but when omega-6 is consumed in excess, it becomes problematic — and even more so if it’s damaged through processing.

As a group, when consumed in the wrong ratios, PUFAs tend to stimulate inflammatory processes in your body, rather than inhibit them. It is my belief that most people would benefit from taking a high-quality animal based omega-3 supplement, in addition to reducing the amount of omega-6 — which you get plenty of from processed foods. In my view, krill oil is clearly your best option when it comes to obtaining important high quality animal based omega-3 fats. It contains essential EPA and DHA in a double chain phospholipid structure that makes it far more absorbable than the omega-3s in fish oil.

Nuts Lower Risk of Metabolic Syndrome

Nuts are another maligned food due to their high fat content. But once again, research is showing that high-fat nuts are among the healthiest foods you can eat. For instance, a study found that teenagers who eat nuts have a lower risk of metabolic syndrome, which is a cluster of symptoms associated with heart disease and type 2 diabetes. Those who ate the equivalent of a small handful of nuts three times a week were less than half as likely to develop metabolic syndrome compared to those who ate none. The risk decreased with each additional gram per day of nut intake (up to 1.8 ounces a day).11

Research has also shown that people who regularly ate a small handful of nuts at least seven times per week were 20 percent less likely to die for any reason, compared to those who largely avoided nuts in their diet.12 So what we’re seeing is increasing research that healthy fats lead to a healthy body. Yet most Americans are not eating enough healthy fats while at the same time consuming too many refined carbs, an especially dangerous combination.

Replacing Saturated Fats With Carbs Is Especially Dangerous

As Americans cut out healthy saturated fats from their diet, they replaced them largely with refined carbohydrates. A 2010 study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that when you replace saturated fat with a higher carbohydrate intake, particularly refined carbohydrate, you exacerbate insulin resistance and obesity, increase triglycerides and small LDL particles, and reduce beneficial HDL cholesterol.13

Likewise, a 2014 study in BMJ Open Heart concluded “the benefits of a low-fat diet (particularly a diet replacing saturated fats with carbohydrates or Ω-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids) are severely challenged.”14 According to the report, the potential harms of replacing saturated fats with carbohydrates or omega-6 polyunsaturated fats include:

Increase in small, dense LDL particles. Shift to an overall atherogenic lipid profile (lower HDL cholesterol, increase in triglycerides and an increase in the ApoB/ApoA-1 ratio).
Smaller improvements in glucose tolerance, body fatness, weight, inflammation and thrombogenic markers Increased incidence of diabetes and obesity
Increased risk of cancer Increased risk of coronary heart disease, cardiovascular events, death due to heart disease and overall mortality
Increased oxidized LDL cholesterol Reduction in HDL cholesterol

Based on evidence from the literature, the researchers recommended the following dietary recommendations:

Dietary guideline recommendations suggesting the replacement of saturated fat with carbohydrates/omega-6 polyunsaturated fats do not reflect the current evidence in the literature.
A change in these recommendations is drastically needed as public health could be at risk.
The increase in the prevalence of diabetes and obesity in the USA occurred with an increase in the consumption of carbohydrate not saturated fat.
There is no conclusive proof that a low-fat diet has any positive effects on health. Indeed, the literature indicates a general lack of any effect (good or bad) from a reduction in fat intake.
The public fear that saturated fat raises cholesterol is completely unfounded as the low-density lipoprotein particle size distribution is worsened when fat is replaced with carbohydrate.
A public health campaign is drastically needed to educate on the harms of a diet high in carbohydrate/sugar.
It would be naive to assume that any recommendations related to carbohydrate or fat intake would apply to processed foods, which undoubtedly should be avoided if possible.

How to Increase Your Intake of Healthy Fats

The take-home message here is that eating saturated fats such as butter, coconut oil, and raw whole milk will not increase your risk of chronic disease or make you fat. On the contrary, it is extremely important for optimal health, including your heart and cardiovascular health. What WILL dramatically raise your risk of heart disease and any number of other chronic health problems is refined carbohydrates, including sugar, fructose, and grains.

Replacing saturated fats with trans fats and non-vegetable carbohydrates is precisely what has led to rising rates of chronic disease and obesity over the past several decades. Fortunately, reversing this trend is rather simple, at least on an individual level: eat more health fat. Many would benefit from getting as much as 50-85 percent of their daily calories from fats. Although this sounds like a lot, by volume the largest portion of your plate would be vegetables because they have so few calories. Examples of healthy fats that you can enjoy and feel good about eating include:

Avocados Butter made from raw grass-fed organic milk Raw grass-fed dairy Organic pastured egg yolks
Coconuts and coconut oil Unheated organic nut oils Raw nuts, such as almonds, pecans, macadamia, and seeds Grass-fed meats