Have you heard the exciting news? Butter is back! Whole milk is healthier! Full-fat dairy spent the past few decades in the doghouse, but it’s been experiencing quite the comeback over the past few years.
So which is it? Is full-fat dairy a less-processed, more satisfying option, or is this all more hype than health?
Newer research suggests that full-fat dairy isn’t quite as heart unhealthy as we once thought, particularly the saturated fat found in dairy. This type of saturated fat is inconclusively tied to elevated cholesterol and heart health. What’s more, the blood cholesterol it does (or rather, may) promote tends to be the large and buoyant type, which is the less atherogenic (artery-clogging) variety of LDL. In other words, even if full-fat dairy does, in fact, raise your cholesterol a bit, it still might not raise the risk of heart disease. Oh, and it has been linked to lower risk of obesity.
Another argument for full-fat dairy is that the nutrients in whole milk specifically are more bioavailable (easily used) compared with the nutrients found in skim and lower fat milk. This is because some of the vitamins (especially vitamin A) are fat-soluble, which means they are found in the fat portion of the milk and may even be more readily absorbed in the presence of fat. Basically, manufacturers have to fortify lower fat milk with vitamin A to make it comparable to what’s naturally found in whole milk, and we may not even absorb what’s added without that little bit of fat.
Beyond nutrition, and certainly more anecdotally, I hear time and again that full-fat dairy is just plain more enjoyable. I am decidedly of the mindset that if you’re going to eat something, you better enjoy it. If that means eating the full-fat, full-sugar, less traditionally “healthy” version–but less of it–then that’s what you do. If full-fat dairy, with its creamier texture and more agreeable mouthfeel, can leave us more satisfied using smaller portions, isn’t it worth it?
The trouble is that research doesn’t quite support all those anecdotes, which makes it difficult to make an official recommendation based on it. Most research suggests quite the opposite, that higher fat foods may increase satiety, but not satiation. Satiety is feeling satisfied for a long period of time after a meal, so you don’t get the munchies an hour or two later. Satiation, on the other hand, is feeling satisfied immediately after eating; it’s the cue that tells us to stop eating because we’ve had enough. So the presence of fat in a meal may mean that we go longer between meals without eating, but it doesn’t actually seem to make us satisfied with smaller portions at the meal in question, as many people claim.
To shoot another hole in the full-fat dairy argument, it may be true that certain fat-soluble vitamins in skim milk are less easily absorbed, but that doesn’t mean we need to go all the way to whole milk. Just a little bit of fat, say in the form of low- or reduced-fat milk, could be enough.
Lastly, although emerging research certainly calls into question the relationship between heart health and the saturated fat in full-fat dairy, it remains inconclusive at this time. Not all of the studies have been well executed, and differing conclusions have been drawn. The frustratingly short version of the story is that we don’t really know the answer yet.
BOTTOM LINE: FIT OR FLOP?
Fit! Without absolute proof, this becomes a question of: Is full-fat dairy innocent until proven guilty or vice versa? I’m voting innocent, but I still don’t see any research recommending going overboard with the stuff.
Consider full-fat dairy as a garnish: feta cheese dotting your vegetable-rich salad; whole milk kefir drizzled over oatmeal and berries; the less frequent scoop of rich ice cream to replace that daily bowl of sugar-free, fat-free, more-chemical-than-food frozen confection.
Full-fat dairy certainly has potential as part of a balanced, nutritious diet. But, as they say, it is the dose that makes the poison, and too much of it may be getting us into trouble.
If full-fat dairy helps you eat less of it and feel more satisfied, if you’re not guzzling a gallon of milk and an entire block of cheese every day, if you’re not interpreting this as an excuse to eat a mountain of ice cream topped with whipped cream and melted butter (please, tell me that is not a thing): Then yes, I think full-fat dairy deserves a spot on your plate. Bon appétit!