The Great Dairy Debate: Low Fat versus Whole Fat

One of the most controversial topics in nutrition right now, is the debate on whether to avoid or embrace whole fat dairy products (or eliminate dairy altogether!) RD Stefanie tackles the answers to this question and how it can apply to every lifestyle. 

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Looking back in time, the great dairy debate started during the late-70’s and 80’d, when America found itself shifting away from whole fat dairy. Research studies at the time, as well as well known health gurus, proposed that American diet was to blame for the rise in heart disease and failing health stats of the American people. To help improve the health of the nation, there was a large push by the government to start substituting dairy fat like milk and cheese with carbohydrates. Food companies also jumped on the trend and started marketing low fat dairy options spanning milks, yogurts and cheese.

Decades later, research and trends on American dairy consumption shows us that although lower fat dairy products are lower in calories and fat, people tend to eat more of it. In addition, an increase in carbohydrate intake namely from breads, potatoes and corn, has not led to a healthier America. A new research study published this year in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition further challenges the outdated recommendations for avoiding dairy fat. The 22 year study found that higher circulating levels of dairy fat components found in the bloodstream were not associated with an increased risk of death from heart disease. When we turn our critical eye abroad, we can’t help but see countries like France with their high fat, high dairy diets without the levels of obesity that we have in America. So now that we are thoroughly confused, what should we do?

Since the jury is still out on whether we should choose low fat or whole fat dairy, it’s best to choose the option that works for you. If you prefer whole fat dairy and feel more full when consuming it, then it’s important to be mindful of your overall portion size. I always tell my clients, “if you like the real stuff, just use less!” Keep tabs on the cream, butter, half&half and cheese going into your meals, as they add a lot of calories with very little quantity. If you choose low fat dairy, consider adding in some plant-based healthy fats like olive oil, nuts, seeds and avocados to help you feel more full. Alos for the low fat team, be sure to watch out for your carb intake. It doesn’t serve anyone well to cut calories and fat from dairy, only to then overeat on carbohydrates. If you can’t decide, feel free to compromise with a moderate dairy fat intake like 2% fat.

As a dietitian, this new research has shaken me to my nutrition core. Previously I was of the “low fat only” mindset. It’s been important to remember that there are many people out there that can greatly benefit from the dairy fat including small children (my toddlers!), the elderly and those who are trying to gain weight. My family now chooses 2% or whole milk and yogurt with our meals, but we are vigilant to include healthy plant-based fats. As with all things nutrition, it seems that moderation is the healthiest option.

By: Stefanie Mendez, MS RD CDN

Nick VanMeter