The Skinny on the Whole Milk Paradox

Jan 6, 2018
glass of milk

We’re told to watch our fat intake, and specifically, to limit saturated fat consumption to reduce our risk of cardiovascular disease and manage our weight. And for those of us 9 and older, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends choosing 3 servings of low-fat or fat-free milk and dairy products daily. But what if whole milk – specifically the saturated fat therein – isn’t really the bad guy it’s made out to be?

February NPR article summarized findings from two recent studies – both concluding that the consumption of full fat dairy is linked with reduced body fat.

The first study, conducted by Swedish researchers on a group of middle-aged men found that those who enjoyed greater intakes of dairy fat (including butter, high fat milk and whipping cream) were less predisposed to central adiposity (excess body fat in the trunk region) over a 12-year period.

The second research paper, a meta-analysis of 16 studies on the topic, concluded that evidence does not support the hypothesis that dairy fat or high-fat dairy foods contribute to obesity.

In the NPR article, Executive Vice President of the National Dairy Council, Greg Miller was quoted saying, “We continue to see more and more data coming out [finding that] consumption of whole-milk dairy products is associated with reduced body fat.”

The meta-analysis also concluded that saturated fat may not have the same effect on cardiovascular disease risk as once predicted.

While the reasons for these associations are yet to be determined, it is thought that perhaps the feeling of fullness associated with the higher fat in certain dairy foods may play a role in the link to reduced body fatness. Additionally, not all saturated fatty acids are equal, and researchers continue to look at the role that differing ratios of saturated fatty acids have on the body. For example, trans palmitoleic acid found in dairy foods, and in greater amounts in full-fat dairy products, has been associated with higher high-density lipoprotein (HDL – the “good cholesterol”), lower triglycerides, lower c-reactive protein (a marker of inflammation), lower insulin resistance and lower incidence of diabetes – all of which play into cardiovascular disease risk. Lastly, it is believe that other components in foods such as vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals, may offset certain risks. More research is needed on the subject.

Before you switch back to whole milk, keep in mind that this is emerging research. As with most research studies, there are limitations. For example, in the Swedish study, the majority of the participants were overweight or obese at the beginning of the study, so while the risk for central adiposity was lessened with full fat dairy intake, it doesn’t mean that these participants weren’t still at risk for obesity and its comorbidities. In general, higher intakes of saturated fat tend to be correlated with greater intakes of calories – a problem for a country where obesity continues to occur at epidemic proportions. For now, stick with the current Dietary Guidelines recommendations by choosing low-fat or fat-free dairy foods. If you choose to drink 2% or whole milk, be sure to balance calories and fat elsewhere within your overall diet. As for children, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends whole milk for children 12 months to 2 years of age, switching to lower-fat varieties after the age of 2 (unless the child is at risk for being overweight or has a family history of obesity, heart disease or high cholesterol – at which the recommendation is 2% milk after weaning).

Although, not conclusive, this research provides rationale for future studies on dairy fats.