Like eggs before them, full-fat dairy is undergoing a reputation makeover. True, health organizations like the Mayo Clinic still recommend favoring low-fat or fat-free dairy, saying that those options offer the same nutrients as full-fat dairy with fewer calories and less saturated fat. And it just takes one glance at the yogurt aisle to know that fat-free dairy still has its fans.
But the tide may be turning for consumers. Last year Organic Dairy’s CEO told NPR that his company’s sales of whole milk were up 10 percent. And butter consumption hit a 40-year high in the U.S. in 2012, thanks in part to a consumer focus on whole foods and avoidance of trans fats, often found in margarine.
And while it’s no secret that fatty dairy tastes great, you may get some health benefits along with the culinary ones. A growing body of research shows that instead of being associated with a risk of obesity, full-fat dairy may have a paradoxical protective effect against excess weight gain. Read on to find out why you should eat more full-fat dairy, for the benefit of both your health and your taste buds.
People who eat full-fat dairy are no more likely to develop type-2 diabetes or cardiovascular disease than their fat-avoiding peers, according to a research review published in the European Journal of Nutrition. The recent research review looked at 25 different studies. Eighteen of those found associations between full-fat dairy consumption and lower body weight, less weight gain, or lower obesity risk. (The rest of the studies were inconclusive on weight gain and dairy’s fat content.)
Researchers who tracked the full-fat dairy consumption and weight gain of 1,500 adults of middle age or older found lower obesity rates in the study participants who regularly ate full-fat butter, milk, and cream, according to a study published in the Scandinavian Journal of Public Health Care in 2013. And a study from Harvard School of Public Health found that when compared to its low-fat counterparts, full-fat dairy products were associated with lower obesity risk.
Another study from 2013, published in Archives of Disease in Childhood, found that consumption of low-fat milk was associated with higher weights in preschoolers. The findings, which came from their examination of more than 10,000 American kids, held up across different racial and socioeconomic groups.
Some vitamins—A, D, E, and K specifically—are fat-soluble, which means they are stored in the liver and fatty tissues and eliminated from the body more slowly than water-soluble vitamins. One study found that vitamin D supplements were better absorbed with a high-fat meal than a lower-fat one. Milk is supplemented with vitamin D, which is only naturally found in a handful of foods—so if your intake of the sunshine vitamin isn’t that high, going for fuller-fat dairy might be a good call.
Any sauces made with whole milk are much less likely to curdle during cooking; it’s just more stable. Full-fat yogurt opens up a whole new world of cooking, too—you can use it in gently baked custards and even to finish the sauces for some heated savory dishes.
If you grew up pouring skim milk over your morning cereal, a switch to whole milk might be jarring at first—it’s thicker, more opaque, and, well, milkier. But it takes less whole milk to satisfy your body and appetite, so you can enjoy smaller portions (both of cereal and the milk you pour over it) and still feel full. This is especially true for whole-milk yogurt, too.
Look at the ingredients listing of low-fat and fat-free sour creams, yogurts, and (sigh) half-and-half, and you’ll probably notice a long list of additives and stabilizers. In the case of flavored yogurts in particular, sometimes manufacturers make up for the removed fat with lots of added sugar.
If you’re wanting to cut down on such processed foods, look to full-fat dairy, which often has a better flavor, anyway. Simply enjoy it a little less often if fat is a concern for you. The benefits of better health and better flavor are worth it.
Terri Coles is a freelance writer living in St. John’s, Newfoundland. She’s a recovering picky eater. Sara Bir is Paste’s food editor, and a happily recovering skim milk user.