How Full-Fat Dairy Helps Keep You Lean

Overview of the Full-Fat Paradox

Do you believe full-fat dairy is unhealthy and makes you fat? This is mostly due to years of inconclusive dairy research and inaccurate news reports influencing the minds of consumers. Many individuals still remain skeptical about dairy products and believe consuming them comes with negative health effects.

Can you imagine a life without real cheese, yogurt, or whole milk? We have been brainwashed to believe these types of full-fat dairy foods contribute to weight gain and obesity. Low-fat and non-fat versions and other alternative options like soy, rice, and almond milk have taken the place of the real deal. Are these choices any better?

According to more recent studies, eating full-fat dairy may actually keep you thin. In fact, what is now being said is that individuals who consume low-fat versions of dairy products are more likely to become obese than people who eat full-fat dairy. This dairy role reversal is also known as the full-fat dairy paradox.

What Is the Full-Fat Dairy Paradox?

Dairy Products, Milk, Cheese, and Yogurt
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The full-fat dairy paradox suggests that if you opt for low-fat versions of dairy products, you are more likely to become obese and unhealthy compared to those eating full-fat versions. The paradox has caused lots of confusion about consuming dairy products. How does it make sense to eat low-fat dairy with the goal to stay lean, when it has the potential to make you unhealthy?

In order to make low-fat dairy products taste good, the fat has been replaced by sugar and other additives. You may think that low-fat yogurt is healthier, but what you’re really doing is increasing the amount of sugar in your diet. Eating too much sugar is linked to weight gain, obesity, and other chronic illnesses like cardiovascular heart disease.

According to Dr. Kevin Campbell, board-certified internist and internationally recognized cardiac specialist, when fat is reduced in the diet, individuals increase their intake of refined carbohydrates and sugar. Consuming too much sugar and refined carbohydrates is the driving force behind the bulk of our nation’s health problems, says Campbell.

Why Do We Believe Full-Fat Dairy Is Unhealthy?

The belief that full-fat dairy is bad for you stems from decades of research and old guidelines showing that saturated fats increase cholesterol levels. According to Caroline Passerrello, MS, RDN, LDN, Spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the 2010-2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend limiting saturated fat to <10 percent of total calories to maximize health benefits.

Because full-fat dairy is high in saturated fat, it has fallen into the category of foods to limit. These recommendations may require revisions based on feedback from updated clinical evidence.

What Should I Believe About Full-Fat Dairy?

According to the medical director of the British Heart Foundation, diets rich in saturated fats increase your LDL cholesterol (bad cholesterol in your blood), putting you at risk for heart attack or stroke. This may not be completely true, or at the very least too general of a statement, especially given more recent studies on the health benefits of dairy fat.

Nutrition expert Caroline Passerrello says there is current and emerging research that shows consuming full-fat dairy may actually help with weight management. Other clinical findings suggest full-fat dairy does not increase your risk of cardiovascular disease or diabetes.

Current research also implies not all saturated fats are created equal. For example, one study examined saturated fat by food source comparing red meat to dairy. Results indicated saturated fatty acids from meat increased the risk of cardiovascular disease while the saturated fatty acids from dairy reduced the risk.

It appears the saturated fats in whole milk or butter increase LDL cholesterol (bad cholesterol) but they also increase HDL cholesterol (good cholesterol). Evidently, the offset between the LDL to HDL cholesterol leaves the total cholesterol to HDL cholesterol unchanged, or even slightly lower.

Positive Dairy Facts and Nutrients

Dairy products have been a nutritional staple for thousands of years, and part of the official nutrition recommendations in many countries. They are a rich source of nutrients including calcium, protein, potassium and phosphorus.

Dairy foods contribute 52-65 percent of your daily dietary intake for calcium and 20-28 percent of your protein requirement. This is especially important for bone health and muscle growth. Is it better to get these nutrients from eating full-fat dairy compared to lower-fat dairy options?

Why Eating Full Fat Is a Better Choice

Eating full-fat dairy is shown to provide essential nutrients difficult to obtain from low-fat or dairy restrictive diets. Dairy foods are nutrient-dense and without added sugars compared to lower fat versions. Remember, consuming too much sugar is shown to contribute to weight gain, obesity, and other health problems.

According to research, the type of saturated fatty acids (SFA) found in dairy foods may actually offer protection against heart disease. It also appears the dairy fat content reduces your risk of metabolic syndrome and obesity. A metabolic syndrome is a group of risk factors including high cholesterol, high blood pressure, high blood sugar, and being overweight that can increase your risk of heart disease and diabetes.

Eating full-fat dairy is shown to provide numerous health benefits including weight loss. Caroline Passerrello, MS, RDN, LDN, suggests consuming full-fat dairy in the context of a balanced meal pattern over time may provide an increase in satiety. This can lead to greater feelings of fullness and potentially less calorie intake overall, says Passerrello.

One study indicated that full-fat dairy has beneficial nutrients and other components for improved health. For example, milk proteins are shown to contain enzymes that inhibit fat cells. This inhibitory effect is said to potentially reduce obesity and high blood pressure.

New Evidence Debunks Old Beliefs

Current studies have shed some positive light on the full-fat dairy paradox. Recent evidence doesn’t support the hypothesis that dairy fat contributes to obesity, metabolic disease, or heart problems.

One study published in the European Journal of Nutrition examined the relationship between high-fat dairy consumption and obesity, cardiovascular, and metabolic disease. The results indicated that 11 out of the 16 studies evaluated disagreed with the hypothesis that dairy fat makes you fat. In fact, the majority of the research findings showed the opposite or no association to dairy fat and increased body fat. Findings also indicated high-fat dairy consumption within healthy dietary patterns doesn’t contribute to cardiovascular or metabolic disease.

A large cohort study including over 15,000 participants investigated the association of consuming dairy products with metabolic syndrome. The findings of this study suggest greater dairy intake, especially full-fat dairy products, may decrease the risk of metabolic syndrome in middle-aged and older adults.

A comprehensive review of numerous randomized control studies examined the impact of dairy foods and dairy fat on cardiovascular and metabolic disease. Results indicated that there is no apparent health risk to consuming high-fat dairy products. The following key points were emphasized:

  • The data don’t support high-fat dairy products having a negative health impact on blood lipids and associated metabolic or cardiovascular disease.
  • Data suggest the saturated fatty acids (SFA) in dairy products including milk, cheese, or yogurt help lower cholesterol. The combination of dairy bioactive peptides, minerals, and fat in dairy products is said to contribute to this cholesterol-lowering effect.
  • Although further investigation is needed on how dairy consumption impacts inflammation, data from several studies indicate high-fat dairy has no effect on low-grade inflammation.
  • Dairy consumption is shown not to have an impact on insulin resistance and glucose in the short term, but may be beneficial in the long-term. More research is required.
  • More research is required on how dairy consumption impacts blood pressure and vascular function.

Best Dairy Food Sources

There is enough evidence to suggest eating full-fat dairy can help keep you lean and healthy. Consuming dairy foods also helps maintain strong bones and supports muscle growth. As with any nutrition plan, consuming the right portion size of any food is essential for optimal health. It’s also recommended to purchase organic dairy foods to avoid added hormones and antibiotics. The following are excellent full-fat dairy sources:

  • Whole Milk Yogurt – more flavorful than non-fat versions, whole milk yogurt is a rich source of calcium and protein. Each 8 oz. serving contains about 140 calories, 8 grams of protein, 11 grams of carbohydrates, 8 grams of fat, and 275 mg of calcium.
  • Whole Milk – nutrient-dense along with a creamy taste and texture, whole milk provides a low-calorie drink with numerous health benefits. Each 8 oz. serving contains about 149 calories, 8 grams of protein, 11 grams of carbohydrates, 8 grams of fat, and 275 mg. of calcium.
  • Full-Fat Cheeses (including cottage cheese) – dairy food made from milk and available in an assortment of colors, flavors, and textures. The nutrient breakdown of cheese is highly variable and depends on the type of cheese. Each 1 oz serving of cheddar cheese contains about 114 calories, 7 grams of protein, .4 grams of carbohydrates, 9.4 grams of fat, and 202 mg of calcium. Each 1-cup serving of cottage cheese contains about 220 calories, 25 grams of protein, 7 grams of carbohydrates, 9.7 grams of fat, and 187 mg of calcium.
  • Butter – a dairy product containing 80 percent butterfat. Each 1 tbsp serving contains about 102 calories, .1 grams of protein, 0 grams of carbohydrates, and 12 grams of fat. Although not a good source of calcium, real butter contains short-chain fatty acids shown to reduce inflammation in the digestive system. Butter also contains essential vitamins and minerals.

Helpful Information and Resources

Caroline Passerrello MS, RDN, LDN, recommends being mindful of overall calories and total fat, including saturated fat intake if switching to full-fat dairy. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics has a direct link to locate and speak with a registered dietitian nutritionist in your area for an individualized meal plan.

Sources:
Jean-Philippe Drouin-Chartier et al., Comprehensive Review of the Impact of Dairy Foods and Dairy Fat on Cardiometabolic Risk, Advances in Nutrition, 2016

Kratz M et al., The relationship between high-fat dairy consumption and obesity, cardiovascular, and metabolic disease. European Journal of Nutrition, 2013

Michele Drehmer et al, Total and Full-Fat, but Not Low-Fat, Dairy Product Intakes are Inversely Associated with Metabolic Syndrome in Adults, The Journal of Nutrition, 2016

Rozenberg S et al. Effects of Dairy Products Consumption on Health: Benefits and Beliefs—A Commentary from the Belgian Bone Club and the European Society for Clinical and Economic Aspects of Osteoporosis, Osteoarthritis and Musculoskeletal Diseases. Calcified Tissue International. 2016

Schwingshackl L et al. Consumption of Dairy Products in Relation to Changes in Anthropometric Variables in Adult Populations: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Cohort Studies. PLoS ONE. 2016

Thorning TK, et al. Milk and dairy products: good or bad for human health? An assessment of the totality of scientific evidence. Food & Nutrition Research. 2016