Low-Fat Milk Products Might Not Be Any Healthier, Research Now Says
Experts explain how the latest data indicates that there may be no benefit to picking this option.
When choosing dairy products at the grocery store, you're usually met with different choices. Do you want whole milk, nonfat, or maybe low-fat? If you're looking to go the healthier route, you'll probably gravitate towards the latter two options. But what if picking low-fat milk products isn't actually making that much of a difference to your health? That's what new research is now saying.
Most major health authorities suggest staying away from whole milk. In fact, the American Heart Association (AHA) recommends that the average adult consume two to three servings of fat-free or low-fat dairy products every day—specifically advising against whole-milk products.
"Fat-free, half-percent fat and 1-percent fat milk all provide slightly more nutrients than whole milk and 2-percent fat milk," the AHA states on its website. "But they're much lower in fat, saturated fat, cholesterol and calories."
Most recommendations like this are based specifically on the idea that full-fat dairy products contain more saturated fats than lower-fat versions and are, in turn, better for your heart health, Dariush Mozaffarian, MD, a cardiologist and professor of medicine at Tufts University, recently told The New York Times.
The U.S. Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA) indicates that anyone over two years old should have a saturated fat intake that is limited to less than 10 percent of calories per day to reduce their risk of heart disease. But despite this guidance stemming back to the 1980s, Mozaffarian said that most studies analyzing the health effects of dairy fat have failed to find any actual benefit to prioritizing low-fat over whole-fat offerings.
According to Mozaffarian, several studies have found an association between dairy consumption and a lower risk of conditions such as high blood pressure, cardiovascular diseases, and Type 2 diabetes. The benefits were often present whether people consumed reduced-fat or full-fat yogurt, cheese, or milk, he added.
To this point, a 2018 study published in The Lancet looked at the dairy consumption of 136,000 adults from 21 countries over nine years. According to the study's findings, those who consumed two or more servings of dairy each day were 22 percent less likely to develop heart disease and 17 percent less likely to die than those who ate no dairy at all. However, the researchers also found that those who consumed higher levels of saturated fat from dairy were not more likely to develop heart disease or die.
A large meta-analysis from 2018 also found that those who had higher levels of dairy fats in their blood were 29 percent less likely to develop Type 2 diabetes than those with lower levels. Mozaffarian said this research suggests that there may be more benefit to consuming dairy fat than avoiding it, The New York Times reported.
Penny Kris-Etherton, a professor emeritus of nutritional sciences at Pennsylvania State University, told the news outlet that an independent panel of nutrition experts is currently reviewing the evidence on how saturated fat consumption affects cardiovascular disease risk—and that their findings could lead to upcoming changes with dairy food recommendations in the U.S.
In the meantime, Kris-Etherton said she thinks it is still best to aim for three servings of dairy per day—but based on the emerging research, she said it's probably fine for one or two of those servings to be whole-fat milk, yogurt, or cheese. Mozaffarian agreed, advising consumers to "choose whatever you like" when it comes to the fat content of the milk products they eat.
Best Life offers the most up-to-date information from top experts, new research, and health agencies, but our content is not meant to be a substitute for professional guidance. If you have health questions or concerns, always consult your healthcare provider directly.
- Source: AHA, Dairy Products - Milk, Yogurt, and Cheese
- Source: U.S. Dietary Guidelines for Americans
- Source: The Lancet, Association of dairy intake with cardiovascular disease and mortality in 21 countries
- Source: PLOS, Fatty acid biomarkers of dairy fat consumption and incidence of type 2 diabetes