Low-fat, or even better, fat-free (i.e., skim) dairy: It’s what’s recommended by the USDA Food Pyramid, Choose My Plate, and numerous other official organizations, so you’d think there is no debate between skim milk vs whole milk. It’s been decided, with skim milk as the clear winner.
After all, a cup of skim milk contains only 83 calories compared to 145 for the same amount of whole milk, not to mention the former contains way less fat. Skim milk is all but fat free while a cup of whole milk contains 8 grams of fat (with 4.5 grams being saturated fats).
While the rest of the big players (like carbs, protein, and calcium are pretty much identical), that’s only part of the story, and the debate is far from over. Instead, the debate between skim milk vs whole milk has just begun.
From Fat to Skim: A Milk History
Before World War II, whole milk was pretty much the only milk available, and people liked it that way. Cream on top was even better. Yum! But then people in the medical community started issuing warnings against consuming too much saturated fat because they believed they contributed to heart disease. As heart disease was (and still is) a leading cause of death for men and women, 1 people listened.
Soon, saturated fat was out, and the low-fat dairy craze was born. From 1975 to 2014, whole fat milk sales dropped by 61%. Skim milk sales, on the other hand, rose sharply—by 156%.
It’s not surprising that Americans, due to federal guidelines and recommendations from nutritionists, switched from whole to skim milk. Skim milk is lower in calories, yet it still provides just as much protein and calcium. All the benefits, without all the calories, right? And of course, it also has significantly less of the so-called “deadly” saturated fat — the fat believed to cause heart disease, diabetes, and death.
But did it really?
From Skim to Whole Fat: A New Paradigm
Now, the pendulum is again swinging the other way, and researchers and nutritionists (though government institutions and health organizations have been much slower) are beginning to warm back up to whole milk, arguing that whole-fat dairy has some big upsides and can, in fact, be superior to skim.
For example, a review article published in the European Journal of Nutrition compared low-fat and full-fat dairy and found that, contrary to popular belief, in 11 of the 16 studies, the folks who consumed whole-fat dairy actually had lower body weight, less weight gain, and a lower risk of obesity. The others reported no association. And there wasn’t enough evidence to back up those claims that whole-fat dairy contributes to cardiometabolic diseases like heart disease or diabetes. 2
This research followed another study that found, surprisingly, the people who had the most whole-fat dairy had a significantly lower chance of being obese after adjusting for demographic, lifestyle, dietary, and cardiovascular risk factors. 3
The study also found a decreased prevalence for abdominal obesity for those who consumed whole-fat dairy, which supported the results of a previous Swedish study. 4
In that study, the participants who consumed butter, full-fat milk, and whipping cream had a lower risk of central obesity (i.e., belly fat) compared to folks who consumed no butter, used low-fat dairy, seldomly used whipping cream, or only consumed a medium intake of higher-fat dairy. This is important as fat around the middle is highly correlated with heart disease.
A large study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition reported that women, 45 years of age and older, who had the highest dairy-fat consumption were the least likely to become overweight. 5 And another large study with nearly 20,000 women found that when women consumed more than a single serving of whole milk a day, they were 15% less likely to gain weight than those who drank no or low-fat milk. 6
Other research has found that dairy consumption not only doesn’t contribute to cardiovascular disease or death, it’s also associated with a better diet quality overall. 7
Saturated fats, long demonized and accused of all sorts of dietary ills, may actually be more beneficial than believed. And research has found that when people purposefully avoid saturated fat, they often replace it with high-carbohydrate foods, presumably processed foods (think fat-free junk foods). This increased carb consumption has been shown to increase the risk for the cardiometabolic diseases like diabetes, obesity, and unhealthy cholesterol levels that saturated fat has long been blamed for. 8
While it may be counter-intuitive, avoiding full-fat dairy and its saturated fat content appears to be counter-productive to optimal health. And in fact, consuming more full-fat dairy may help reduce the risk for type II diabetes, 9 conditions of metabolic syndrome (like insulin resistance, high triglycerides levels, and low HDL levels), 10, 11 and potentially colon cancer, though more research is needed. 12
Skim Milk vs Whole Milk
In the skim milk vs whole milk debate, Why would whole milk—so rich in calories—actually help you lose weight and belly fat? One reason suggested by researchers is because it’s so much more filling. Consuming less-satiating skim milk, in other words, may lead to a greater intake of food throughout the rest of the day, including more sugars and refined carbs. 13
Whole-fat milk may also help us absorb the nutrients found in milk, including fat-soluble vitamins like A, D, E, and K. It may also help us gain muscle by increasing protein synthesis after resistance training. 14 And it’s a relatively rich source of the vital omega-3 fatty acids, providing 183 mg vs. the 2.5 mg found in skim milk.
According to a study published in the Journal of Nutrition, “Total and especially full-fat dairy food intakes are inversely and independently associated with metabolic syndrome in middle-aged and older adults, associations that seem to be mediated by dairy saturated fatty acids. Dietary recommendations to avoid full-fat dairy intakes are not supported by our findings.” That’s right, the very thing that you’ve been told to avoid (i.e., saturated fat) may be a key to unlocking the benefits of full-fat dairy. 11
So rather than getting hung up on calories (or even fat), when you look at the whole picture (no pun intended) of skim milk vs whole milk, there’s a clear winner. Just remember to choose organic, grass-fed whole milk when possible as it also provides higher amounts of omega-3 fatty acids 15 and that portion sizes do matter. The higher calorie count can add up quickly, so drinking gallons of whole milk won’t get you where you want to be. And while milk is one of the most nutritious foods around, it’s only part of the nutrition story. A balanced diet is made up of a rainbow of colorful vegetables and fruits and other quality foods. And of course, dairy isn’t for everyone, as it’s one of the more common food sensitivities. So, listen to your body — but not necessarily outdated dietary recommendations.