There’s no shortage of low-fat dairy options in your grocery store. And we’ve certainly been programmed to reach for those low-fat and fat-free cheeses, yogurts and skim milk options over the years. But the question is, are these fat-deprived products really better for us?
According to a growing number of studies, no.
Low-Fat Dairy Dangers
We need fat to survive. The right, healthy fat. Still, dietary recommendations continue to discourage Americans from reaching for full-fat milk and other dairy products. A 2016 study published in Circulation is a strong reminder that nutritional policymakers need to reconsider their stance against full-fat dairy. Looking at more than 3,300 people, researchers found that people with the highest byproducts of full-dairy products enjoyed a 46 percent lower risk of developing type 2 diabetes compared to people who ate less full-fat dairy. (1)
A 2017 study published in the Journal of Nutrition examined the relationship between dairy intake and the incidence of pre-diabetes or diabetes in 2,809 middle-aged adults. They looked at the effects of a variety of dairy products including low fat and full fat varieties and found that only high-fat dairy and cheese showed a dose-response, inverse association with the incidence of type 2 diabetes in study participants. (2)
That’s just one of the low-fat diet risks science is starting to point out. Another 2016 study published in The American Journal of Nutrition makes another strong case for eating full-fat dairy. Researchers studied more than 18,000 women and found the ones who consumed more full-fat dairy were 8 percent less likely to be overweight or obese compared to the low-fat dairy group. (3)
One theory is that eating full-fat dairy helps people feel fuller longer. Aside from that, low-fat and fat-free dairy products are often laden with added sugar, a potent risk factor for obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, cognitive decline, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD), and even cancer. (4)
We were told for a while that dairy consumption, especially milk drinking, generally contributes to acne. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, there have been a number of flawed studies in recent decades that weakly link dairy intake to acne occurrence. However, the strongest association definitely seems to be between skim milk and acne. (5)
Watch Out for Conventional Dairy
The health of the animal and the processing methods of milk can categorize dairy as either one of the healthier foods in the world or one of the worst. If you’re consuming milk, yogurt, butter and cheese produced from conventionally raised cows that are fed a steady stream of antibiotics, your dairy intake may be playing a role in antibiotic resistance. Not just for you, either — also for your family and everyone else in the community.
A study published in 2010 points out how over the last two decades, there has been a development of antimicrobial resistance as the result of agricultural use of antibiotics and this directly affects the treatment of diseases in humans around the world. Antibiotic resistance is now a global public health concern and as the study notes “it is clear that use of antibiotics in adult dairy cows and other food-producing animals does contribute to increased antimicrobial resistance.” (6) So it certainly matters how the animals we get our dairy and meat from are treated during their lives.
Another study published in the Journal of Veterinary Science in 2012 examined the changes over a three year period in udder health and antibiotic resistance of mastitis pathogens taken from dairy cows that had their care and management changed from conventional to organic. The study concludes with a profound finding: When cows managed conventionally transition to organic management, there is a decrease in the number of antibiotic-resistant pathogens. (7)
The pasteurization process that most conventional dairy products undergo destroys essential enzymes and probiotics, as well as alters vital amino acids. Nearly all commercial milk is also homogenized, a process that oxidizes fats and creates free radicals. The Weston A. Price Foundation explains in detail how “ultra pasteurization is an extremely harmful process to inflict on the fragile components of milk.” More specifically, the rapid heat treatments that occur during pasteurization, and especially during ultra-pasteurization, actually change the molecular structure of the milk and then the enzymes can’t do their job at breaking down the milk proteins properly. If these milk proteins enter the bloodstream there can then be an undesirable immune response (which is why highly processed conventional milk could contribute to leaky gut). (8)
Need another reason to stick with organic, grass-fed dairy products? In 2013, scientists published a study showing that milk from organic, grass-fed cows contains much higher levels of brain- and heart-healthy omega 3 fatty acids, along with lower levels of inflammatory fats typically found in milk from grain-fed, conventionally raised cows. (9)
My Go-To Dairy Advice
• Raw, fermented dairy from organic, grass-fed goats or sheep is my gold-standard choice, although it can sometimes be hard to find. (You may need to order kefir grains to ferment sheep or goat milk.)
• If you aren’t in the market for sheep or goat milk, look for plant-based alternatives like coconut milk or almond milk. (Look for products without carrageenan.)
• If you’re sticking with cow’s milk, always choose organic, milk from pasture-raised cows to avoid chemicals in milk. If possible, look for organic milk from Jersey or Guernsey cow breeds. They haven’t gone through a genetic mutation that leads to an inflammatory protein called A1 beta‐casein winding up in the milk.