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The Latest Fat Facts on Dairy

GOT MILK?  Non-fat, Low fat, or Full fat?

Submitted by:  Marcia Bristow MS RDN CD

Okay, I have to admit there is nothing like the creaminess of full fat dairy products.

The texture and flavor of whole milk yogurt, or whole milk in cereal or over a bowl of warm oatmeal is a wonderful treat.  But I grew up in a fat-phobic generation and I seldom allow myself to “indulge” in anything but non-fat or low-fat dairy products. But what if dairy fat is not the dietary demon I’ve been led to believe it is over all these years.  New research suggests I may want to reconsider this full fat dietary option.

One study in the Scandinavian Journal of Primary Health Care found over a 12 year study that middle aged men who consumed whole milk, butter and cream were significantly less likely to become obese when compared to their counterparts who never or rarely ate high-fat dairy.  In another study in the European Journal of Nutrition, a meta analysis of 16 observational studies concluded the hypothesis that high-fat dairy foods contribute to obesity and heart disease risk is not supported.  In fact in most studies, consumption of high fat diary was associated with a lower risk of obesity.

Possibly, the relationship to lower risks of obesity is due to a satiety factor.  Higher fat foods take longer to digest and allow us to feel full for a longer period of time.  As a result, fewer calories may be consumed.   Or possibly, there are bioactive substances in whole milk that enable a greater rate of utilization of fat to burn for energy rather than storing fat in the body.

Original recommendations (for people aged 2 and older) to include low fat, non-fat dairy products were grounded in concerns about cholesterol in the diet.   Since saturated fat contains cholesterol a broad generalization was made that all foods containing saturated fats are detrimental to health.  Because whole milk products are high in saturated fat, the recommendation to limit consumption was established to reduce the risk of heart disease.

However, not all fats are created equal.  Emerging studies are focused on the possible benefits of consuming full-fat dairy products in the diet.  In addition to an association with lower risks of obesity, whole milk contains beneficial omega-3 fatty acids.  According to Adam Lock, PhD, an assistant professor in the department of animal science at Michigan State University, “The fats in whole diary foods are highly complex and may contain beneficial ingredients.  What is also important is that milk fat isn’t consumed in isolation; dairy foods contain protein, calcium and other components that may modulate the effect of fat on health. ”    More and more research is showing no significant evidence to associate dietary saturated fat with an increase risk of heart disease.

It seems the public is slowly accepting this information.  According to George Siemon, CEO of Organic Valley, non-fat and low-fat diary options still dominate the market but organic, whole fat varieties are on an upswing in sales.

I would love to think someday soon I will be able to advise my clients and I will be able to make whole milk choices for myself without any concerns of negative health implications.  Right now, it sounds a little to good to be true but I’m willing to be more flexible and will include these dairy options on a more regular basis.

However, the dietitian in me still has to be concerned about consuming an appropriate number of calories to meet energy needs and weight goals.  I will initiate the recommendation to include more whole milk products but for those clients who have goals to loose or maintain weight they will continue to hear me say, “In MODERATION.”   Of course, this would only be a recommendation IF a person would prefer a whole milk option. As a beverage, I honestly enjoy the refreshing flavor of ice-cold skim milk or 1% milk compared to the thick consistency of the full fat milk.  But when it comes to yogurt and cheese, I would make the switch in a heartbeat…

Stay tuned, researchers are continuing to investigate how dairy fat may help control weight and improve health.

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