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Low-Fat v. Full-Fat Dairy: Which one is actually healthier?

Updated on 27. Dec. 2018

Low-fat dairy has long been touted as a pillar of the healthy diet. Many dietary guidelines recommend one to two servings of low-fat dairy per day. However, full-fat dairy has recently stolen the spotlight inspiring the question, is low-fat dairy actually healthier than full-fat dairy? Or is full-fat dairy the better choice?

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The low-fat dairy recommendation has existed as a suggested way to avoid the additional calories and saturated fat contained in full-fat dairy while still getting the benefits of the calcium and protein found in dairy products. Let’s look at the following breakdown of the caloric and fat content of one cup of milk:

  • 1 cup nonfat milk: 80 calories, 0.5g fat
  • 1 cup 1 percent milk: 100 calories, 2.5g fat
  • 1 cup 2 percent milk: 122 calories, 5g fat (3g saturated fat)
  • 1 cup whole milk: 150 calories, 8g of fat (5g saturated fat)1

As you can see, full-fat dairy does contain more calories and saturated fat than low or no-fat dairy, however, this may not necessarily be a bad thing. Often when people reduce their fat intake, they increase their intake of carbohydrates and sugars. Low-fat does not necessarily equal weight loss. Rather, it is crucial to understand food and healthy eating at a macro level, not just the micro level of one nutrient.2

Not all calories are equal when it comes to weight gain or loss. Fatty acids, the kind found in full-fat dairy, are more complex compounds that keep you feeling fuller for a longer period of time.3 These fatty acids are often lacking in a reduced-fat diet, leading to lower satiety and therefore additional food intake.

Recent studies have called into question the assumption that low-fat dairy is healthier than full-fat diary.

In a study published in Circulation, Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian and his colleagues studied blood samples from over 3,000 adults over a period of 15 years. They found that people who had higher levels of the three byproducts of full-fat dairy had an average 46 percent lower risk of diabetes during the study period than those without the byproducts. Dr. Mozzafarian was quoted as saying there is currently “no prospective human evidence” that people who eat low-fat dairy do better than those who eat full-fat dairy.4

In a study in the American Journal of Nutrition, researchers looked at the effects of full-fat and low-fat dairy on obesity. In a study of over 18,000 women, it was found that high-fat dairy consumers reduced their risk of being obese by 8 percent.5

Saturated fat has long been linked to increased risk of heart disease, however, the European Journal of Nutrition published a review of existing research on the topic of low-fat versus full-fat dairy and found that people who eat full-fat dairy were no more likely to develop cardiovascular disease or type 2 diabetes than those who eat low-fat dairy.6

Most researchers are hesitant to make any new dietary recommendations based on their study results, citing the need for more research. But while the jury is still out on the future of dairy nutritional guidelines, the bottom line is that poor nutrition is equivalent to poor health. We believe all the experts can agree that an excess of anything is not good for you! Balance is a key component of a healthy diet. Limit your intake of full-fat or high-fat dairy and if you choose low or no-fat dairy, watch your subsequent carb intake!

For more information on choosing the best carbs, check out this article.

To ensure that you are not eating too much of any one thing, check out EatSmarter’s tips for correct portion sizes.




1. Samantha Olson, "Whole vs. Skim Milk For Heart Health: New Dietary Guidelines May Revert Back To Whole Milk," Medical Daily, IBT Media Inc., 12 Oct. 2015, Web.

2. Alice Park, "The Case Against Low-Fat Milk Is Stronger Than Ever," Time, Time, 4 Apr. 2016, Web.; Susan Scutti, "Whole Milk And Full-Fat Dairy May Help You Maintain Weight, Reduce Diabetes Risk," Medical Daily, IBT Media Inc., 07 Apr. 2016, Web.; "Full-fat Dairy May Reduce Obesity Risk," Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, The President and Fellow of Harvard College, 26 Feb. 2014, Web.

3. Markham Heid, "Why Full-Fat Dairy May Be Healthier Than Low-Fat," Time, Time, 5 Mar. 2015, Web.; "Full-fat Dairy May Reduce Obesity Risk."

4. Park, "The Case Against Low-Fat Milk Is Stronger Than Ever."; Allison Aubrey, "The Full-Fat Paradox: Dairy Fat Linked To Lower Diabetes Risk," NPR, NPR, 18 Apr. 2016, Web.; Scutti, "Whole Milk And Full-Fat Dairy May Help You Maintain Weight, Reduce Diabetes Risk."

5. Park, "The Case Against Low-Fat Milk Is Stronger Than Ever."

6. Heid, "Why Full-Fat Dairy May Be Healthier Than Low-Fat."; Karen Giles-Smith, "Milk Fat Does a Body Good," Today's Dietitian, Great Valley Publishing, Inc., n.d., Web.

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