In response to rising rates of obesity and heart disease, the federal government’s 1977 Dietary Goals for the United States urged people to reduce their consumption of saturated fat from animal products and replace them with foods with low or no saturated fat and cholesterol, such as skim milk and vegetable oil.
Despite conflicting scientific evidence, all dietary fat became suspect, and the low-fat craze exploded and endured through the 1990s and early 2000s — with the full support of the food industry, which marketed myriad low-fat and fat-free products to keep up with demand.
If only we’d known then what we know now: that all those low-fat foods would make us sicker, and that the fat we feared is actually an important element of a healthy, satisfying diet.
Consider these reasons to choose full-fat dairy.
1. Fat doesn’t make you gain weight.
“When it comes to fat, we have a semantics problem,” writes Mark Hyman, MD, head of strategy and innovation for the Cleveland Clinic’s Center for Functional Medicine, in Eat Fat, Get Thin: Why the Fat We Eat Is the Key to Sustained Weight Loss and Vibrant Health.
It’s easy to assume that the fat we eat contributes to unwanted fat in our bodies. But time after time, research has shown that this simply isn’t the case — and that, in fact, the opposite may be true.
“Full-fat dairy promotes satiety, or a feeling of fullness, that has the potential to curb your appetite for longer than fat-free or low-fat dairy products,” explains functional nutritionist Deanna Minich, PhD, author of The Rainbow Diet. “Full-fat dairy could lead to consuming fewer carbohydrates over time, and even more sustainable weight loss.”
2. Your body needs fat.
Fat is necessary for a wide range of important physiological functions.
“Fat is a primary nutrient for maintaining normal metabolic processes, and certain types of fatty acids — called essential fatty acids — can only be obtained via diet,” Minich explains.
Your muscles, including your heart, need fat for energy. It’s an important component of your cell membranes and plays a crucial role in hormone production. Many vitamins and nutrients are also fat soluble, which means your body needs fat to absorb them.
Essential fatty acids strengthen the immune system and suppress systemwide inflammation; fat also makes up nearly 60 percent of your brain.
3. Your food needs fat.
It’s not just good for your health: Fat is also an indispensable component in many of your favorite dishes. It’s such a vital ingredient in the kitchen that chef Samin Nosrat identified fat as one of the four essential elements of good cooking in her James Beard Award–winning cookbook, Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat.
You probably know that a drizzle of olive oil will enhance the crisp taste of fresh herbs in your homemade salad dressing or the piquancy of summer tomatoes. According to Nosrat, this is because fat carries flavor.
“While certain fats have their own distinct flavors, any fat can convey aromas — and enhance flavors — to our palates that would otherwise go unnoticed,” she writes.
“Fat coats the tongue, allowing various aromatic compounds to stay in contact with our taste buds for longer periods of time, intensifying and prolonging our experience of various flavors.”
4. Full-fat dairy is a whole food.
Because fat is such an important element of flavor, dairy products usually don’t taste as good without it. So, manufacturers often replace saturated fat with sugar and other additives to compensate for the loss of flavor and texture.
Research shows that it’s these added sugars that contribute to poor cardiometabolic health. Saturated fats from whole foods actually tend to be better for your body. (For more on why quality matters when it comes to saturated fat, see “The Facts About Fat”.)
Even if you choose fat-free dairy products without added sugars, you’re likely to experience an insulin spike, because there’s no fat to slow the digestion of the lactose (milk sugars). And because reduced-fat products aren’t as satiating as full-fat varieties, you’re also more likely to feel hungry again sooner if you opt for dairy in its processed, lower-fat form. (For more on this phenomenon, see “Low-Fat Dairy May Increase the Risk of Type 2 Diabetes”.)
“These high-sugar, high-glycemic foods are highly addictive and spike insulin, which in turn leads to fat storage, hunger, a slow metabolism, and the cholesterol profile most linked to heart disease,” Hyman writes.
Insofar as it’s used as a tool for weight loss, then, low-fat dairy often produces the opposite result.
5. Full-fat dairy may be easier to digest.
Research suggests that approximately 65 percent of us may struggle to digest lactose after infancy. Because full-fat dairy contains less lactose than lower-fat versions, it may be better tolerated by those with lactose sensitivity or intolerance.
Ultimately, it’s up to you to determine whether your body tolerates dairy at all — and, if so, which products support your health and nutrition goals. (Learn about A2 milk, which may be easier for some to digest, at “Is A2 Milk Better for You?”.)
6. The research is in, and fat isn’t the bad guy.
We know now that sugar and refined carbohydrates are the true culprits behind rising rates of obesity, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease.
Ironically, a low-fat diet tends to encourage the consumption of these foods, which the federal government acknowledged in the 2015 edition of the now-renamed Dietary Guidelines, when it finally dispensed with limits on total dietary fat. (For more on rethinking common myths about heart health, see “Rethinking Heart Health”.)
“Low-fat diets have had unintended consequences, turning people away from healthy high-fat foods and toward foods rich in added sugars, starches, and refined grains,” writes cardiologist Dariush Mozaffarian, MD, dean of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University, in a JAMA commentary on the 2015 update. “This has helped fuel the twin epidemics of obesity and diabetes in America. We really need to sing it from the rooftops that the low-fat concept is dead. There are no health benefits to it.”
Our Dairy Picks
Because lactose intolerance or sensitivity is so common, we recommend dairy products that pose fewer digestive difficulties. These are the ones we reach for most often.
Because it’s been fermented and strained, Greek yogurt is lower in lactose and easier for most people to digest than a glass of cow’s milk. Most Greek yogurts also contain probiotics that help increase the good bacteria in your gut. (For more on their health benefits, see “Everything You Need to Know About Probiotics”.)
Similar to a thin yogurt, kefir is also fermented and rich in probiotics. Though goat- and cow’s-milk kefir are already low in lactose, you can also make a lactose-free version with coconut water or fruit juice.
Butter is made by removing the liquid component of cream, resulting in a final product that’s approximately 80 percent fat, with a low lactose content. Be sure to choose organic — any toxins or antibiotics will be concentrated in the animal fat — and grassfed, which contains higher levels of health-promoting omega-3s and conjugated linoleic acid (CLA). (For more on CLA, see “CLA: Can This Fatty Acid Help You Lose Weight?”.)
Ghee is butter that’s been clarified to produce an animal fat that’s even lower in lactose and casein — and its smoke point is higher than butter’s, making it useful for cooking.
Like butter, heavy cream is a high-fat product that contains almost no lactose — so if you’re dairy sensitive, you may still be able to tolerate a splash of cream in your coffee.
The bacteria in cheese break down some of the lactose as the cheese ages, meaning Parmesan, sharp cheddar, Manchego, and similar varieties can often be tolerated by those with dairy intolerance. (For more on the joy of cheese, see “The Joy of Cheese”.)
Higher in omega-3s and CLA than cow’s milk, goat’s milk contains less lactose and more prebiotics, which benefit your microbiome.