Are full-fat dairy foods healthier than low-fat options after all?

Kevin Farrell

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Dairy milk consumption in the U.S. peaked in the 1970s, a decade which saw the average American consume some 30 gallons of the stuff a year. There was no distinction between whole, 2% or skim options, because those varieties didn’t yet exist for the most part. And nut and plant-based milks made from things like almond, soy and oats were decades away from cultural permanence. In the 1970s, milk was simply milk, in all of its whole fat glory.


But the 1980s and 90s brought with them a dieting craze which demonized fats, and sought to paint full-fat foods as the root of all body troubles. Added sugar, at least for a time, was ignored as a contributor of obesity, diabetes and other cardiovascular diseases. No, it was fat, and purely fat that was thought to be making us all, well, fat.

Milk producers debuted lower fat options, and it became common to see far more cartons of skim, 1% and 2% milk fat options taking up the refrigerator space in grocery stores that whole milk had once possessed. Consumer interest in eschewing milk fat trickled down throughout the entire dairy industry, in fact, with low-fat and fat-free yogurts, cottage cheese and cream cheeses knocking their richer, full-fat predecessors off of shelves.

But speaking broadly, Americans didn’t slim down en masse in our 30 years of avoiding dairy fat at any cost. In fact, the opposite largely occurred. Over the last 50 years, the number of obese Americans has doubled. And the number of obese and overweight adolescents in America has tripled. So what gives?

While it’s hardly the case that low-fat milk has been making us all fat, a series of recent dietary studies have confirmed what many have suspected for quite some time – namely, that the saturated fats found in dairy milk and products have zero impact on human mortality rates. And in a profound twist, research has demonstrated that the saturated fatty acids present in dairy milk actually has beneficial health properties for some people. Regular consumption of heptadecanoic acid in particular has been associated with a lower risk of stroke.

Assistant professor of epidemiology, human genetics and environmental science at the University of Texas School of Public Health, Marcia de Oliveira Otto, led one such recent study. She tells The Atlantic of the surprising results, “I think the big news here is that even though there is this conventional wisdom that whole-fat dairy is bad for heart disease, we didn’t find that. And it’s not only us. A number of recent studies have found the same thing.”

A growing scientific body of evidence clearly dissembles the long-held belief that low-fat dairy is a key contributor to a healthy American diet. But breaking from that decades-long narrative is no small feat, evidence be damned. That’s because the chief proponent of low and fat-free dairy’s outsized contribution to the food pyramid is none other than the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), an organization with a something of a joint mandate to both inform healthy eating practices, and to encourage the consumption of goods manufactured in the United States. Given that the U.S. produces more than 200 billion pounds of milk each year, shuffling production back toward an emphasis on full-fat dairy will hardly be an overnight occurrence.

Of course, as plant-based milks and alternative dairy products continue to flourish at unprecedented market rates, it’s worth pointing out that the narrative that milk consumption is a critical part of a child’s successful transition from childhood into healthy adolescence has been proven to be largely untrue. The protein, vitamin content and micronutrients derived from dairy milk has been easily replicated in plant-based alternatives, even if the numbers fluctuate quite a bit between the various options. By all means, drink milk in whatever form you like. But if you’ve been sticking to low-fat dairy for its perceived health benefits, there is simply little evidence remaining here in 2018 to validate that supposed healthful heritage. Plus, the “Got Milk?” mustaches never really worked with a glass of skim anyway.


Kevin Farrell

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