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What's the Healthiest Milk?

Full-fat dairy is better for you than you might think.


By Anthea Levi, Health.com

Full-fat dairy is making a comeback. Long demonized for being calorie-dense and full of saturated fat, whole milk and yogurt are now reclaiming their reputations as healthier options compared to low-fat and skim alternatives.

First, let’s backtrack to understand how we even got here. “Back in the fat-phobic 1990s, the mainstream advice from health agencies and health professionals was to cut back on fat throughout the diet, including fat from dairy products like milk,” explains Frances Largeman-Roth, RDN, nutrition expert and author of Eating in Color.

As more people opted for items like fat-free or low-fat yogurts, manufacturers started pumping their products with sugar and artificial ingredients to make them taste better. The result? We could consume nearly a day’s worth of sugar in a single serving of strawberry yogurt.

Skim milk and fat-free, flavored yogurts aren't just unsatisfying and, in the case of fat-free yogurt, often full of added sugars, though—they also deprive us of the health benefits of full-fat dairy, Largeman-Roth says.

"Surprisingly, full-fat dairy products may actually help you stick to a healthy weight," says Largeman-Roth. She cites one study that followed 18,000 middle-aged healthy weight women for nearly a decade and found that those who drank more whole milk and full-fat dairy products were less likely to become overweight or obese compared to women who didn't consume any full-fat dairy. A small study published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition also found that daily consumption of whole milk increased participants’ HDL (or good) cholesterol levels, whereas daily skim milk consumption did not.

"Other studies have found that kids who drank whole milk had higher blood levels of vitamin D compared to their peers who drank low-fat milk," Largeman-Roth adds. "The researchers think milk fat may help kids’ bodies absorb vitamin D more efficiently."

The good news? Times have changed. Plenty of us now know that there’s no reason to fear healthy fats. Still, some healthy foodies may be accustomed to eating plain, non-fat yogurt to avoid saturated fats and adding their own sources of good fats like nuts and seeds on top. If you’re part of this cohort, you may still want to consider eating the full-fat version every now and then.

"Both are good choices, but organic whole milk dairy products have the added advantage of being higher in omega-3 fatty acids as well as conjugated linoleic acid, which is helpful for maintaining a healthy weight and may help manage type 2 diabetes,” says Largeman-Roth.

As with any food group, overdoing it on dairy isn’t a good idea either. If you tolerate dairy well, stick to the recommended three servings per day. Not sure what that might look like? "You might use eight ounces of milk in your overnight oats, then have a yogurt as a post-workout snack and then nibble on 1.5 ounces of aged cheddar in the later afternoon,” says Largeman-Roth, adding that “milk and other dairy products are an excellent source of calcium and women need 1,000 milligrams of calcium daily.”

If you have trouble digesting lactose, the naturally occurring sugar in milk, be sure to opt for lactose-free dairy products (there are tons available in supermarkets these days). Also good to know: “Greek yogurt is very low in lactose due to the way it’s made, and hard cheeses don’t contain any lactose, so they can be eaten by people who can’t digest it,” Largeman-Roth says.

Full-fat dairy products might not be the best choice for people following the DASH diet to treat hypertension. "Your doctor or registered dietitian may recommend that you make the switch to low-fat dairy products on the DASH diet, which is packed with fruits, vegetables, and low-fat dairy," notes Largeman-Roth.

For the rest of you, feel free to add a few servings of full-fat dairy to your daily diet, and opt for organic products if they’re accessible to you. "A review of several studies found that milk from organic cows is higher in heart-healthy polyunsaturated fatty acids, omega-3 fats, vitamin E, iron, and CLA than conventionally farmed milk," Largeman-Roth says.
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