Do you stock your fridge with low-cal yogurt? Or start most fall days with a skinny-vanilla-no-foam-extra-hot pumpkin spice latte? If your diet includes dairy and you’re watching the scale, then it’s likely you’ve been loyal to one kind only: nonfat.
As most health-conscious people know, fat has been considered a forbidden food in the US for almost 40 years. But a growing amount of new research suggests that eating more fat might actually be good for us. And while US government experts have been reluctant to explicitly endorse foods high in saturated fat like meat and dairy in the past, unprecedented changes are coming soon that may change the way Americans eat.
“The lessons we’re learning are that whole foods are really the key,” says One Medical nutritionist Karyn Duggan, CNC. “Don’t be scared of fat, but don’t go bananas with it either.”
What to Eat?
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As best-selling food journalist Michael Pollan explains to the Washington Post, he’s always thought skim milk was silly. Removing fat from milk leaves behind a thin, sugary beverage “since the amount of lactose per ounce rises.” He goes on that more and more research is pointing to the possibility that sugar is much more of a nutritional threat than fat, and government officials are now taking note, re-thinking some of their longstanding recommendations regarding whole milk.
Every five years, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) updates its food guidelines including dietary recommendations. Draft recommendations circulated in late 2014 indicate that when the revised guidelines come out later this year, the agency will recommend eating a limited amount of saturated fats, found in foods like meat, eggs, and–for those who can tolerate dairy–whole milk.
Up until this year, US dietary guidelines have traditionally recommended low-fat or nonfat milk. But with the USDA’s new recommendations, more people may be washing down their Christmas cookies and eating granola with old-fashioned whole milk.
What’s the difference between whole milk and nonfat?
Most milk processing involves three steps: pasteurization, homogenization, and fortification. These steps destroy harmful microorganisms, create a smooth texture, and boost nutritional value.
Whole milk — the least processed kind of cow’s milk available — is about 3.5 percent milk fat, delivering about 5 grams of saturated fat per cup (nonfat milk contains 0 percent milk fat and delivers 0.1 grams of saturated fat).
However, some experts argue that when the fat is removed from milk, important fat-soluble nutrients like vitamin A and D are lost too. What is left behind is an overabundance of lactose, or milk sugar. The remaining thin fluid still has protein, but without the balance of fat necessary to slow digestion and increase satiety, drinking this sugary liquid can lead to blood sugar spikes and crashes that bring unpleasant effects like hunger, crankiness, and fatigue.
“Fat really is responsible for not only creating a better mouth-feel with its creamy texture, but actually slowing down digestion so you feel fuller longer,” Duggan says.
The Case for Whole Milk
This isn’t the first time researchers have seen evidence that fat might not be as bad as everyone thought. An analysis of 16 previous observational studies from experts at organizations including Harvard Medical School and Northwestern Medical School found that there isn’t enough evidence to support the belief that high-fat dairy foods contribute to obesity and heart disease risk. In fact, in most of the studies, high-fat dairy was actually associated with a lower risk of obesity. Although the researchers weren’t sure why whole milk dairy was associated with reduced levels of body fat, One Medical’s Malcolm Thaler, MD theorizes the issue may not be the milk itself, but what people eat as a substitute for fat. “One very plausible explanation is that people substitute carbs–especially processed foods and sugar–for the fat,” he says. “That is the real problem; it’s not that fat is protective, it’s just that it’s better than the alternative.”
More research shows full-fat dairy helps keep weight off: a 2013 Swedish study published in the Scandinavian Journal of Primary Health Care found that middle-aged men who ate high-fat milk, butter, and cream over a 12-year period were significantly less likely to become obese than men who never or rarely ate high-fat dairy products. And a University of Virginia study found children who drank 2 percent or whole milk weighed less, while drinking low-fat milk was associated with more weight gain over time. And, as previously reported, evidence from six clinical trials indicates that a low-fat diet had no impact on heart disease; in fact lower-fat diets did not reduce deaths from any cause.
What should you do?
Both Thaler and Duggan are quick to point out that nutritional studies are difficult to run, so results should be taken with a grain of salt. But as long as you’re not lactose intolerant or you don’t suffer from chronic sinusitis (it’s aggravated by dairy), you may want to consider drinking whole milk from time to time.
“Based on the available research, a moderate intake of whole milk may actually be beneficial for health,” Duggan says. “But even with that preliminary evidence, it all comes back to moderation. Just because experts say that fat is no longer the bad guy doesn’t mean everyone should start eating huge amounts of fat. It’s all about what suits [you] and finding a sustainable diet that [you] actually want to eat and feel good eating.”