Low fat or full fat milk? It's udderly confusing

Glass of milk

It’s a product most people purchase weekly and consume on their morning cereal or in their coffee. Everyone has an opinion and a preference based on taste, health perceptions and culture.

But which one should you choose? Is low fat milk actually healthier?

Saturated fat and chronic disease

Dairy is one of our core food groups and this is due to it being a great source of calcium, protein, vitamins and minerals. The Australian Guide to Healthy Eating recommends choosing low-fat milk, cheese and yoghurt products for anyone over the age of 2. This is because full cream dairy is high in saturated fat.

Saturated fat is associated with the development of heart disease, high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes. Due to this association, it is assumed that saturated fat in dairy will increase your risk of these diseases. Therefore we are encouraged to choose the low fat dairy option.


The food matrix

However, recent research has been looking at the ‘food matrix’ of dairy. The ‘food matrix’ describes the interaction of nutrients in a whole food rather than considering each nutrient in isolation. For example milk is made up of sugars, fats, proteins, vitamins and minerals. Do these nutrients have a different action when consumed in milk rather than in another food?

So when saturated fat is consumed in dairy food, does it still increase our risk of developing heart disease and type 2 diabetes?

label comparison of saturated fat in full cream milk and low fat milk
Label comparison of Dairy Farmers Australia full cream milk (on the left) and their skim milk (on the right

What does the research say?

A large number of prospective observational studies have been completed to look into this question. A prospective study is when researchers follow a group of people for a period of time and observe their behaviours – in this case dairy consumption – and outcomes – risk of cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes.

It has been shown that people who consume high amounts of full fat dairy are not at an increased risk of developing cardiovascular disease or type 2 diabetes. Some studies even found that people who consumed high amounts (>2 serves) of full fat dairy could be slightly reducing their risk of these diseases.

Even better, fermented dairy, in particular yoghurt, has many health benefits. It can reduce your risk of type 2 diabetes, reduce LDL (or bad) cholesterol and reduce high blood pressure. Full fat dairy was also associated with weight maintenance, likely due to its ability to keep you feeling full.

The reason for these positive health effects of dairy and full fat dairy remain unclear. But it seems the saturated fat content of milk, cheese, and yoghurt may not be as bad as we once thought. It is important to note that most of the evidence is around the consumption of milk, cheese, and yoghurt in healthy individuals. Other dairy foods like butter, cream, and sour cream have not been well studied. And, the effect of full fat dairy on people living with cardiovascular disease has not been extensively studied, so low fat dairy may still be the best option for these people.

Tips for dairy choices

Bowl of yoghurt, muesli and berries

Here is a summary and some practical tips when thinking about including dairy in your diet:

  1. Choosing full fat milk, cheese and yoghurt is a healthy choice.
  2. Do not fear the extra calories of full fat dairy. They can actually help with weight maintenance and keeping you full and satisfied.
  3. Consuming large amounts (>2 serves a day) of dairy is not associated with increased risk of chronic diseases.
  4. Eat full fat natural yoghurt and add in your own flavours with honey, fruit, maple syrup and nuts.

Of course there are going to be people who still prefer or need to consume low fat dairy and that remains a healthy choice. Just keep your eye out for any extra sugar that may be added to make up for the loss of fat, particularly in low fat yoghurt, You can find this out through the label on the packaging. 

But overall it is good news for lovers of delicious and creamy milk, cheese and butter. Eating these foods can actually be good for you!