As the shift towards eating more natural, wholesome foods becomes more popular, whole milk dairy products are often promoted as a healthier, purer and more nutritious choice than “processed” low-fat alternatives. They also tend to taste better. And with research now casting doubt on the long-held assumption that low-fat products are useful for weight loss – so should you abandon low-fat and reduced fat for good?
Although full-fat dairy products are higher in calories, recent studies have found that people that regularly consume full-fat dairy products, including milk and cheese, tend to have fewer weight problems – possibly because the fat in whole milk dairy products makes you feel satisfied sooner and for longer, so you’re less likely to overdo it with these rich foods. There is also evidence that dairy’s fatty acids may also help promote fat-burning and limit the amount of fat your body stores.
Low in fat and high in sugar?
Perhaps you’ve heard that low-fat dairy products are loaded with additives and extra sugar, but this isn’t necessarily true. It depends on what you’re buying. Skim and whole milk contain the same amount of sugar (12 grams per cup) and both have low, and roughly equivalent, glycemic index scores. Most reduced-fat cheeses have an identical ingredient list to that of whole milk cheese, and the same goes for non-fat versus whole-milk Greek yogurt. Some low-fat dairy products do contain vegetable gums and other additives to produce a thicker, creamier texture, but the basic staples (the ones without fruit) typically don’t. As always, you should read labels and check for sweeteners, both natural and artificial.
(Consider the big picture) – going ‘whole’ with dairy
Recent studies were only observational – they certainly don’t prove that eating high-fat dairy products help manage weight, nor do they provide a reason to begin eating dairy products if you currently don’t. It’s important to consider how dairy choices affect your overall health – not just weight. Dairy products have no fiber (which is vital for proper digestive and immune health) and it is high in saturated fats (which are fattening and promote inflammation). Moreover, while the case against saturated fat may be overstated, recent headlines are no excuse to go overboard with full-fat dairy. To reduce your risk of heart and degenerative disease, most experts still recommend replacing food rich in saturated fats with the “healthy” alternatives such as olive oil, nuts, seeds and oily fish such as salmon, mackerel and sardines.
Whether you prefer whole milk, skim milk, or no dairy milk at all – each option can be part of a healthy, well-balanced diet. If you are in good health and you much prefer the higher-fat versions of milk, yogurt, and cheese because you feel they’re more natural (and taste better), just remember that portion control is essential. Eating a moderate 1 to 3 servings daily (a serving is 1 cup milk or one yogurt or 1 ounce of cheese), means you should still have room in your daily calorie quota for a decent amount of healthy (polyunsaturated) fats from olive and other oils, nuts, and seeds, along with all the other nutritious foods that make up a healthy diet. Just don’t overdo it with total calories, nor other sources of saturated fat such as red and processed meats and snack foods. If your weight or your cholesterol levels start creeping up, reevaluate your portions and choices.
Ultimately, it’s a personal choice
As a nutritionist who focuses on promoting environmentally friendly and cruelty free eating, I generally avoid dairy products due to ethical concerns about how the treatment of animals and the negative effects the dairy industry has on the environment.
From a strictly nutritional objective, there are people who should avoid dairy products for hormonal reasons and because of food intolerances. For the rest of you that do eat dairy and tolerate it well, I recommend consuming full fat, organic versions of milk and yogurt, along with small amounts of fresh cheeses such as mozzarella, ricotta and sheep’s and goats cheese, such as feta.
But if you’re deciding between skim milk and whole milk, the existing research argues you may be better off grabbing the full-fat stuff.
Do keep in mind that fat is the most calorie dense nutrient, and since all of us need to watch calories, my view is they’re better spent on the healthiest fat sources such as nuts, seeds, avocado, olive oil and other oils such as hemp, sesame and walnut – ideal for dressing salads. But don’t deprive yourself – feel free to enjoy butter, whipped cream and ice cream occasionally and in the right context – guilt free!
For nutritional consultations on a wide range of health issues contact Susan Tomassini, Licensed Nutritionist BSc (Hons) Dip BCNH @ 06 17481114