Is whole milk healthy? Should you choose full-fat dairy? Here are the facts so you can make the best decision for your family.
Is Whole Milk Healthy? The Backstory
Low-fat and fat-free dairy has long been recommended by major health organizations for everyone older than two years of age (under age two, children need the fat for brain development). The reason: Full-fat dairy is high in saturated fat, a kind of fat that is linked to higher blood cholesterol levels–which may in turn increase your risk for having heart disease. Though there has been some research questioning the link between saturated fat and heart disease, the latest Dietary Guidelines for Americans and the American Heart Association still advise limiting saturated fat.
Is Whole Milk Healthy? The Latest
Lately, some research has been suggesting that full-fat dairy may not be something to avoid after all. In one study of children ages 1-6 years old, those who drank whole milk had higher vitamin D levels and lower BMI (body mass index) than those who drank low-fat fat.
Positive findings have been found in adults too. In a study of more than 8,000 women ages 45 and older, those who took in more high-fat dairy products gained fewer pounds over the next three years compared to those choosing low-fat dairy.
In another study published in The Lancet, adults ages 35-70 who had more than two servings of dairy a day had a lower risk of death from heart disease or stroke than people who had no dairy–regardless of whether it was full-fat or low-fat.
What could explain these results? For starters, dairy contains other fats besides saturated–including some that may have health benefits, like medium-chain triglycerides (MCT, the kind found in coconut oil) and unsaturated fats too.
It’s also possible that the beneficial nutrients in dairy–such as calcium, vitamin D, and potassium–might blunt negative effects of saturated fat (and Vitamin D is easier for the body to soak up when fat is present). Finally, whole milk is more filling and satisfying. Feeling satisfied with meals and snacks that include full-fat dairy could help prevent overeating.
Is Whole Milk Healthy? What You Should Do
For now, the advice from the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (and the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Heart Association) remains that everyone over the age of two should choose low-fat or fat-free milk (and low-fat dairy) instead of whole to limit calories from saturated fat. As more research emerges about saturated fat, I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s less focus on saturated fat in dairy and perhaps even a change in those recommendations. But while the debate goes on, here’s my advice:
If your kids like whole milk, choose that kind. If weight is a concern, I’d suggest looking to other places in the whole family’s diet (like fast food and low-nutrient snacks) to trim–and make sure you’re offering water throughout the day to drink too.
If your kids prefer fat-free or low-fat, that’s fine too–they’re still getting the important nutrients. Buy the kind you and your kids like (an exception, of course, is if you’ve been advised by your child’s pediatrician to choose a specific kind of dairy–or to avoid dairy–because of medical history or other issue.) Personally, my kids prefer one-percent milk but like whole milk yogurt, so that’s what I buy.
Though there’s a misconception that whole milk is more nutritious than lower-fat milk, keep in mind that all varieties of milk, whether whole or fat-free, have the same amounts of nine essential nutrients including protein, calcium, potassium and B vitamins. Most fluid milk is also fortified with vitamin D. Lower-fat varieties also have vitamin A added (milk fat is naturally rich in vitamin A, so whole milk may not need additional A). You may see this presented in an alarming way (“synthetic chemical vitamins are added!”) but this is simply fortification designed to combat rickets (likewise, folic acid is added to enriched grain products to reduce neural tube defects in babies).
Also, feel free to ignore internet rumors that low-fat milk is “processed” and “full of sugar”. Yes, you will see sugar listed on the Nutrition Facts Panel of low-fat milk–but you’ll see it on ALL milk and dairy because it all contains natural milk sugar called lactose. There is no additional sugar in fat-free milk.
And unless you’re drinking raw milk, your milk has gone through processing. Milk is pasteurized (briefly heated at a high temperature) to kill potentially harmful bacteria. It’s also homogenized (pushed through a strainer) to keep it from separating. To achieve different varieties of milk, the fat is removed by centrifugation (spinning at high speed), not with a chemical process as you may have read. Then fat is added back in depending on the kind of milk being made: more fat added to make whole milk, less to make low-fat, and none to make fat-free.
Finally, remember that when it comes to dairy, children ages 2-3 only need two cups a day, according to the USDA recommendations. Kids ages 4-8 need 2.5 cups. And for kids 9-18, three cups.