Is full-fat milk best? The skinny on the dairy paradox
- 18:12 21 February 2014 by Jon White
Consuming full-fat dairy products seems to reduce your risk of becoming obese. Leading nutritionist Walter Willett explains why that may be
It’s enough to make you weep into your skinny latte. The “dairy fat paradox” is the suggestion that if you opt for low-fat versions of dairy products you are more likely to become obese than people who eat full-fat versions.
Two recent studies have added weight to this idea. A Swedish study of 1782 men in the Scandinavian Journal of Primary Health Care says that consumption of full-fat dairy products is correlated with a lower risk of developing central obesity – excessive weight gain around the abdomen. A separate and more recent meta-analysis of 16 relevant studies in the European Journal of Nutrition echoes the weight-gain link.
Jon White asks US nutritionist Walter Willett of Harvard School of Public Health for his views on the evidence.
What do you make of the suggestions that eating full-fat dairy products means you are less likely to pile on the pounds?
The findings for body weight shouldn’t be too surprising as many studies have not supported the idea that fat in the diet is specifically related to greater fat in our bodies. The idea that all fats are bad still persists in the minds of many people, despite layers of evidence that this is not true. If anything, low fat/high carbohydrate diets seem to be related to greater long-term weight gain.
Where did the idea that full-fat dairy is bad for you originate?
This concept emerged in the 1950s and 60s when it was shown that saturated fat increased blood cholesterol levels. Because dairy fat has high saturated fat content (about 65 per cent), it was deemed to be harmful. Also, in the 1950s US physiologist Ancel Keys and his colleagues showed that areas with high consumption of saturated fat, largely from dairy fat, had much higher rates of heart disease than the Mediterranean countries, where dairy consumption is lower.
How did the idea take such a strong hold and persist for so long?
This idea is not entirely wrong; but the weight-loss effect of reducing saturated fat depends on what replaces it in the diet – we consciously or unconsciously replace a large reduction in calories with something else. Also, the findings on saturated fat and blood cholesterol levels were repeated many times.
So how much full-fat dairy should we consume?
In current US guidelines, the need for high intake of dairy products is overstated, in part because the requirements for calcium have been overstated. I think one or two servings a day (about 250 to 500 grams of milk) will provide adequate calcium, and with this level it is fine to be full fat.
Do you have any theories about why obesity risk might be higher for those consuming low-fat dairy products?
One likely explanation is that the full-fat version provides more satiety, but it is also possible that some of the fatty acids in milk products have an additional effect on weight regulation. Also, unfortunately, in many low fat dairy products the fat is replaced by sugar, and these will almost certainly induce more weight gain than the full fat versions.
In our own research, we have found that overall dairy consumption is not substantially related to weight gain or loss, but full-fat yogurt consumption was related to less weight gain. The picture of dairy foods and health is complicated and deserves further study.
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