As a dietitian, I totally get why nutrition advice frustrates so many people–because sometimes it does a complete 180. Take dairy: For years we’ve been told to choose low-fat and non-fat milk, yogurt, and cheese. So we dutifully did that, even when our spouses complained about the fat-free cheese (cringe).
Now the headlines are doing a surprising turnaround, and some researchers are saying that full-fat dairy might not be so bad after all—and in fact, might even be the better choice.
The reason low-fat dairy has long been recommended (and still is, by major health organizations) is to reduce intake of saturated fat, which we’ve been told raises cholesterol levels and boosts the risk of heart disease. But lately, some research is questioning that connection.
Consider this: In a study in The Lancet of adults ages 35-70 from 21 different countries, people who had more than two servings of dairy a day had a lower risk of death from heart disease or stroke (regardless of whether it was full-fat or low-fat) than people who had no dairy. In another study, researchers measured circulating levels of dairy fatty acids in the bloodstreams of people ages 65 and older. People who had higher levels of these fats did not have greater risk for coronary heart disease or other cardiovascular events in the following 13 years. In fact, people who had higher levels of one particular dairy fat actually had a lower risk of dying of a stroke.
The possible perks may extend to your weight too. In a study of more than 8000 women ages 45 and older who were normal weight, those who took in more high-fat dairy products gained fewer pounds over the next three years compared to those opting for low-fat dairy.
These findings all seem to fly in the face of what we’d expect, since full-fat dairy has more saturated fat and more calories than low- or no-fat. So what’s at work? For one, the fat profile of dairy includes certain kinds of fats that may be beneficial to health, including medium-chain triglycerides (MCT, the same kind found in coconut oil) and some unsaturated fats too. It’s also possible that the nutrients dairy contains, like vitamin D, potassium, and calcium, could blunt negative effects of saturated fat. And vitamin D is more easily absorbed by the body when there’s fat on board.
It’s also possible that some of the benefit is because full-fat dairy is more filling. Feeling satisfied with meals and snacks that include dairy may help prevent overeating.
If you’re wondering what that means for your grocery cart, keep in mind that the Dietary Guidelines for Americans still say that adults should choose low-fat or non-fat dairy to limit saturated fat. So does the American Heart Association. My personal advice is to choose the kind you prefer and enjoy dairy most often in a healthful way, like a cup of full-fat yogurt with fruit and nuts (allowing for the occasional slice of greasy pizza too!).
If you prefer low- and non-fat milk, rest assured that it has roughly the same amount of protein, calcium, potassium, and B vitamins as full-fat does. And don’t believe the internet rumors that fat-free milk is unhealthy or contains added sugar (it doesn’t).
And whatever you choose, can we all agree that life’s too short for fat-free cheese?