Full fat vs low fat: How to choose the best dairy products for your health
Should we swap out skimmed milk for Jersey and vegetable oil spreads for butter? A dietitian examines the evidence
For years we’ve regarded full fat milk, cheese and butter with suspicion, worried that our favourite dairy products’ saturated fat content would harm our health. But now evidence is mounting that full-fat dairy might not be as dangerous as we have long thought.
According to dietitian Duane Mellor, certain fatty acids in dairy fats could help reduce the risk of developing heart disease and type 2 diabetes. Meanwhile, in 2020 researchers found that children who ate full-fat dairy foods were healthier than those who ate reduced-fat versions, in a review of all available evidence. These observations are also seen in adults. And fermented dairy products, such as kefir, live yogurt and aged cheese, contribute to a more diverse gut microbiome which, in turn, can boost overall health. Yet there’s no doubt that dairy foods, including butter and some cheeses are high in saturated fat, which can raise the risk of heart disease and stroke. Here, registered dietitian Aisling Pigott looks at the pros and cons of eating dairy – and how full fat can impact our health.
Drink any cup of tea today and you can bet it’ll be made with semi-skimmed milk.
“Over the past 20 or 30 years, the idea has been that the UK – a nation of tea and coffee drinkers – could lower its saturated fat intake by swapping to low-fat milk,” says Aisling. “There is a big link between saturated fat and cholesterol, which increases our risk of cardiovascular disease,” she says. “But whole milk isn’t even a medium-fat product.”
In the UK, milk comes in three fat levels:
● Whole or full fat (3.5 per cent fat)
● Semi-skimmed (1.8 per cent fat)
● Skimmed (up to 0.3 per cent fat)
A food is ‘high fat’ when it contains 17.5 per cent fat or more; low-fat has three per cent and fat-free means there’s less than 0.5g per 100g or 100ml. But even Jersey milk only contains five per cent fat. Dairy fat also has benefits: it contains vitamins such as vitamin A and E. Skimmed milk does, however, have a marginally higher calcium content. “So while milk and dairy do contribute to our saturated fat intake, our most harmful source is from heavily processed foods which have been steadily increasing in our diets, such as pastries, pies and ready meals,” she says.
Butter fell out of fashion as vegetable oil spreads emerged as “healthier” alternatives. But Aisling says there is no reason that butter can’t be enjoyed within a balanced diet. “We should be using butter sparingly and in moderation but it’s a high-density source of energy, it has some nutritional components – and it’s delicious,” she says. Men are advised to eat a maximum of 30g of saturated fat a day, and women’s limit is recommended to be 20g. “If you like it, enjoy it. But think about portion sizes,” she says. “You need to think about how it fits into your overall diet, how much are you having and how often?” What about spreads containing the cholesterol-lowering plant compounds stanols and sterols? “You’d have to eat up to eight teaspoons a day to experience any benefits,” she says.“A good diet will reduce cholesterol and ideally we’d be getting our unsaturated fats through nuts, seeds and olive oil.”
Woe betide anyone who tries to stop a cheese-lover from enjoying their favourite food, whether a hard parmesan or a creamy brie. “We know that cheese is a higher fat product, but it’s got lots of calcium, it’s a really good source of protein, iodine, vitamin A, a good source of energy and has loads of health benefits,” says Aisling.“Plus, adding cheese to a dish can enhance it, making high-fibre and nutrient-rich food, such as a salad, more appetising.” However, because of many cheeses’ high-fat content, reduced-fat versions won’t necessarily be “low fat”. There are other considerations too. “The lower fat versions are often milder in taste and the mouth-feel can be affected when we lower the fat content,” Aisling says. But she points out that some naturally low-fat varieties like cottage cheese and quark are becoming popular for people looking for a low fat way to boost their protein intake.
More like this
Most food experts will agree that yogurt is a great addition to our daily diets. “You can get an amazing selection of yogurt to suit every need and taste,” says Aisling. “There’s yogurt with live bacteria, which can promote gut health, and there are different options for fat content – Greek yogurt can come with zero percent to 10 per cent fat. Yogurt can also be incorporated into other foods so it’s a good way of adding protein into our meals throughout the day, she says.