The Skinny On Dairy Fat: Is Non-Fat Really Healthier?

For years, we’ve been told the same dietary advice when it comes to weight loss and health: Enjoy a diet low in fat in order to shed pounds and stay lean. This advice has been reflected in the media, by dieticians, and appears in most dietary guidelines.

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In particular, we’ve been told that low-fat dairy products are a way to take in protein and promote weight loss. The problem is that this is not necessarily true. 

Read: Five Common Myths About Belly Fat

The Full-Fat Vs. Non-Fat Myth

What if I told you ordering that “skinny” latte, eating fat-free yogurt or using so-called “healthy” margarine in place of butter was actually not better for you or your waistline, and eating the full-fat versions were?

It certainly sounds too good to be true. After all, how can delicious butter and creamy whole milk be good for us? Recent research, however, is suggesting just that.

One study showed that those who consume full-fat dairy products are actually more likely to weigh less, and are significantly less likely to develop diabetes. Yet another recent study found that full-fat dairy consumption in women was linked to a lower risk of becoming obese. This information can be tough to swallow, because it is completely opposite of what we have believed to be “true” for so long.

But What About Calories?

The myth surrounding non-fat versus full-fat is linked to the fact that full-fat dairy products contain more calories. Of course, by now, we know that not all calories are equal, and more doesn’t always mean a bad thing. When dairy is stripped of its naturally occurring fat, you are left with a whole lot of nothing: essentially, empty calories with a bit of protein. To make up for the lack of fat, manufactures then often pump these dairy products with fillers and additives. These fillers are usually sugars, so while we may be eating fewer calories, we end up increasing our sugar intake.

The Virture Of Fat

Technically, non-fat dairy has fewer calories, litre for litre, than full-fat dairy. So the reasonable assumption has been that therefore, non-fat dairy is healthier and leads to greater weight loss.

Unfortunately, this turns out to be not the case, since it misses the bigger picture about what eating fat really does for our bodies and our appetites. Recent research has found that reducing fat consumption leads people to eat more sugar and carbohydrates (which the body turns into sugars) overall, and to consume more calories.

Read more: Calorie Counting Doesn’t Work. Here’s Why

This is because eating fat is satisfying, and this helps to control cravings as the day goes on. People who eat full-fat dairy products versus low-fat will feel fuller for longer, and therefore are less likely to seek additional calories from elsewhere.

When In Doubt, Go Natural

Foods stripped of their naturally occurring properties are often not digested the same way than those closest to their most natural state are. Eating a diet rich in whole foods is important to health and disease prevention, so focusing on one single (apparently bad) nutrient — fat — and removing it, changes the overall profile of the food and the way it is metabolized. It is thought that the fat in dairy may actually help the liver in its ability to break down sugar.

Read More: What Is Clean Eating? Easy Tips For How To ‘Eat Clean’ Every Day

While it is unlikely that dietary guidelines will change anytime soon and begin recommending full-fat dairy products over the non-fat kind, the widely-believed claim that you are better off consuming low-fat dairy than the full-fat kind does not have adequate research to back it up, and should not be taken as fact.

Like all food research, it’s important to be highly critical of so-called findings. It’s important to listen to our own bodies, and find out which foods work best for us as individuals.

So if you enjoy butter on your toast and cream in your coffee, you may be better off not stressing so over their fat or calorie content so much. Go ahead and enjoy your full-fat dairy in moderation, knowing that your health (and your waistline) are probably not in as much jeopardy as you may have once thought.