By Todd C. Killebrew, N.D.
For decades we have been counseled that if we want to lose weight, prevent heart disease and diabetes we need to stay clear of saturated fat as much as possible. Mainstream wisdom since the 1950’s has told us that the saturated fat found in dairy products clogs our arteries, expands our waistlines and should be avoided. Since then the food industry has scrambled to provide products that are “healthier”, i.e. low-fat and skim milk, reduced fat cheese, nonfat yogurt, etc. Entire diets have been created around the belief that saturated fat is essentially bad and is the underlying cause of many of our health concerns. The thought has become so entrenched in our way of thinking that few, including health experts, even think to question it.
One look at the USDA graph below of milk consumption in the U.S. over the last 45 years reflects how we have reacted to this “dairy fat scare.” From this diagram we see that milk consumption in general has gone down, but whole milk consumption has gone way down. And low fat milk consumption has gone way up.
The problem is, there has never been solid scientific data to back up the claims that dairy fat causes weight gain and chronic disease. These claims have merely been assumptions based on hypotheses from poorly conducted research. In fact, everything we have been taught about saturated fat is being turned upside down as emerging research is showing the opposite to be true – that full fat dairy is actually beneficial.
Here are some compelling findings from the last decade:
- A Swedish study from the June 2013 Scandinavian Journal of Primary Health Care concluded that men with a high intake of dairy fat (ie, whole milk, cream and butter) were less likely to become obese over a 12 year period than men who rarely consumed high-fat dairy. Conversely, those who consume less saturated fat are actually more likely to become obese than those who consume full-fat dairy. Another large Swedish study also found similar results for women: Normal weight women who drank one or more cups of whole milk per day had a significantly lower chance of gaining weight than those who drank reduced-fat milk.
- A meta-analysis from the February 2013 European Journal of Nutrition analyzed 16 different observational studies on the relationship between high-fat diary foods, obesity and cardiometabolic disease. It found that 11 of the 16 studies saw an inverse relationship between high-fat dairy consumption and obesity risk. This means that as high-fat dairy consumption went up, obesity risk went down. Not a single study found an association between high-fat dairy consumption and fat gain. Some did, however, find an association between fat gain and low-fat dairy consumption.
- Another Swedish study presented at the 2014 European Association for the Study of Diabetes showed a 23% decrease in diabetes risk in women who ate 8 servings of full-fat dairy on a daily basis. Granted that is a lot of dairy to eat daily, but the results are compelling.
- The January 2013 Journal of Nutrition reported a similar link between full-fat dairy consumption and a decrease in heart attack risk in women. This study found something else that is interesting: Eating butter on bread was associated with an increased risk of heart attack while using butter in cooking did not (i.e., the butter was likely not the culprit).
- Advocates of a low-fat dairy diet have pointed to a finding in the April 2013 American Journal of Clinical Nutrition that trans-Palmitoleic acid, a type of fat found almost exclusively in dairy products, is associated with high LDL cholesterol (the bad cholesterol). However, within that same study they also found it was linked with lower triglycerides, lower fasting insulin, lower blood pressure and lower diabetes risk. Another factor that other studies have shown is that while dairy fat may increase LDL cholesterol, it also proportionately increases HDL cholesterol (the good cholesterol), essentially negating any potential increase in heart disease risk.
- In October 2005 the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition published a study that found a 41% decrease in colon cancer among those who ate at least 4 serving of high fat dairy daily. This is likely due to dairy’s high butyric acid content, a fatty acid with important benefits for the health of the intestinal lining.
- A University of Virginia study on the effects of full fat dairy in children found that those who drank skim or low fat milk gained more weight than those who drank full-fat milk. Additionally, a study from the March 2013 Archives of Disease in Childhood concluded that children who regularly consumed low–fat milk were more likely to become overweight over time.
And yet it is very common practice for pediatricians to recommend that kids drink 2% milk or lower to combat excessive weight gain or too high of a BMI.
Researchers are still working to understand the all of the reasons for these correlations but as far as obesity risk is concerned it is believed that it may in part be due to the bioactive substances in the milk fat that alter our metabolism in such a way that helps us to burn the fat and use it for energy instead of storing it as fat deposits.
Another reason is that, calorie for calorie, higher fat content foods tend to be more filling (eg, steak, cheese, avocados, nuts, etc). Statistically we have observed that as people avoid fats they turn to carbohydrates in an effort to feel satiated which directly correlates to weight gain. It is no wonder the fat scare that’s been gripping much of the world for the past several decades has actually led to an overall increase in obesity and accompanying chronic health conditions.
While I am not recommending anyone make saturated fat the center of their diet or consume excessive amounts of dairy, it has – barring those with lactose intolerance or allergies – an important place as part of a healthy diet. The people examined in most of the studies showing the benefits of full-fat dairy were eating a typical diet, they weren’t eating whole sticks of butter or entire 32 ounce containers of yogurt on a daily basis. They were simply incorporating full-fat dairy as a part of their existing diet. Overeating just about any kind of food will lead to weight gain and full-fat dairy is no exception. As the old saying goes, “all things in moderation.”
To reiterate, everything we’ve been taught about saturated fat and its supposed link to weight gain and chronic disease was based on poorly conducted research or simply anecdotal evidence. The scientific data simply does not substantiate these claims. On the contrary, there has been an emerging body of evidence that these claims are not only false, but that full- fat dairy is actually beneficial.
The next time you go to the grocery store skip the low fat or skim milk and go for whole milk. Use real butter rather than margarine or vegetable oils (a topic for a future discussion). Go for full fat yogurt. Not only do all of these taste better, they can potentially help you lose weight, maintain your weight, and prevent chronic illness, including heart disease and diabetes.
Photo credits: Glass of milk, macalit via Flickr Creative Commons; Boy drinking milk, 1Dental via Creative Commons License; Cow, Kabsik Park via Flickr Creative Commons