We take a look at the difference between full-fat dairy vs low-fat dairy

Which dairy is the better choice: full or reduced fat?

In the past couple of decades fat has been marketed as both a villain and a hero, but its recent reputation boost has created some confusion for consumers. So, as far as dairy products go, is whole (full-fat) better for you than its skim (reduced-fat) counterpart?

Is it healthier to consume full-fat with the extra calories or stick to low-fat versions, which may potentially be higher in sugars and more processed? We take a look at some of the things to look out for when deciding whether or not to consume full- or reduced-fat dairy.

Not all fats are created equal

For a long time it was commonly accepted that low-fat was good and high-fat was bad, but not all fats are created equal; the type of fat matters. It’s more important to look at the types of fat in the product and choose foods with more of the “healthier” mono-unsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, rather than saturated fats.

Most dairy products are high in saturated fats, a type of fat that is thought to contribute to heart disease and other health risks. However, the saturated fat in dairy products may not be as damaging as we first thought.

Practicing dietitian and nutrition consultant, Joel Feren, says that more and more studies have suggested that saturated fat in dairy foods may not have the same adverse effects on health as those found in processed foods and meat products.

“Not all saturated fat is bad. Nevertheless, there is a clear link between an overconsumption of foods high in saturated fat (think fatty cuts of meat, pastries and other baked goods) and nasties like heart disease and certain cancers. Meanwhile, it’s encouraging to note that the saturated fat in milk doesn’t appear to influence our blood levels of cholesterol like we once thought.”

It’s all about balance

Fat is not always the villain; it can play an essential role in keeping your diet balanced. It can also help keep you full and energised for longer. As far as dairy is concerned, it has a number of health and nutritional benefits.

“Dairy in all its forms is a rich source of a number of key nutrients including protein, calcium, phosphorous, vitamin B12 and magnesium.” says Feren. So does this mean we can consume a mountain of Camembert whenever we want to? Well … unfortunately not.

…saturated fat in dairy foods may not have the same adverse effects on health as those found in processed foods and meat products.

According to Feren, it’s all about a balanced diet where moderation is key. “Dietary fat plays a number of important roles in the body, from vitamin absorption to cell integrity and hormone production. The key to a healthy and ‘balanced’ diet is to include all the foods from the five core food groups: meat and alternatives, whole grains, dairy, fruits and vegetables. By incorporating all the foods from these food groups you will be maximising your intake of nutrients. And that’s going to lead to good health.”

As a general guide, it’s not recommended to have more than 20 grams of saturated fat per day for the average adult 8300kJ/day diet. That doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy a full-fat latte or cheese toastie from time to time. It’s best to find a balance by choosing a combination of both low-fat and full-fat options. For example, you can still enjoy a full-fat yoghurt and a slice of cheese in your sandwich, but perhaps compromise with skim milk in your morning porridge.

Look for added sugar

One other important thing to consider when making your dairy selections is sugar content. Be wary of some reduced-fat yoghurts, especially the flavoured variety. These yoghurts often substitute fat content with more sugars to make them taste better. Checking the nutritional label to ensure the sugar content is less than 10g/100g.

It’s also important to look out for hidden ingredients on the nutrition label such as brown rice syrup, agave nectar and concentrated fruit juice, especially if they appear in the top three of the ingredients list. This could mean the products is particularly high in sugar.

Ignore the silo mentality

Although fat content is important, it’s now largely understood that making recommendations based on a single ingredient is getting us nowhere, and quickly. It’s important not to focus on one nutrient in a product in isolation; you have to look at the whole picture. Food and drink products have complex nutritional structures, which have impacts on digestion, absorption and the specific bioactive properties of the nutrients they contain.

“Too often we focus on a single food or single nutrient. However, that’s like focusing on just one piece of a complex puzzle. Instead, we must look at the overall nutritional quality of our diets,” says Feren.

…you’re likely to absorb slightly less of the nutrients in milk without the fat, particularly the fat-soluble vitamins such as vitamins D, A and E.

For example, if you’re consuming low-fat milk on a daily basis, it doesn’t necessarily make you healthy. It depends what else you are putting in your body and what you’re replacing it with. Often, when people focus on losing weight and reducing saturated fat content, they substitute it with refined carbohydrates, which present health risks of their own since the body converts these carbohydrates into sugar then eventually to body fat.

In fact, some recent studies have even suggested that full-fat dairy may keep you thinner and that there is a correlation between consuming low-fat dairy and being overweight.

This has become known as the “full-fat dairy paradox”. One of the reasons is that many producers have substituted fat with sugar and other additives. It’s great if you’re substituting fat with wholegrains and healthy fats like mono-unsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, but unfortunately this is not always the case.

As far as ingredients lists go, usually the shorter the better. When buying dairy products, check the ingredient list first to ensure they aren’t over-processed with added ingredients like sugar and artificial colours and flavours.

Choosing your milk

Milk options can be rather overwhelming when doing your weekly shopping. Low fat, super skinny, organic, half fat, lactose-free the list goes on.

Dairy in all its forms is a rich source of a number of key nutrients including protein, calcium, phosphorous, vitamin B12 and magnesium. The major differences between low-fat and full-fat dairy are largely kilojoules and fat content.

A glass of full-fat milk contains up to 10 grams of fat compared with low-fat milk, which is between zero and two grams of fat depending on brand. On the plus side, lower-fat milks can actually be slightly higher in calcium and protein than full-fat milk and may not have added sugar as commonly perceived.

However, on the downside, you’re likely to absorb slightly less of the nutrients in milk without the fat, particularly the fat-soluble vitamins such as vitamins D, A and E. Full-fat milk is also usually lower in lactose content so is better for people with lactose intolerance, and it helps you feel more satiated for longer.

The type of milk that’s right for you largely depends on what your diet/lifestyle is and what your health goals are. Keep this in mind next time you shop and balance full and reduced fats in your diet.

Lisa Holmen

Lisa Holmen

Lisa Holmen is a food and travel writer, recipe developer and photographer. Her blog, Lisa Eats World, is one of the leading food and travel blogs in Australia, featuring healthy recipes, restaurant reviews and food-inspired travel guides. Lisa divides her time between the bustle of Melbourne and her new home on the Mornington Peninsula where she loves meeting local producers, visiting wineries, soaking up the coastal lifestyle and adopting a “slower” approach to living.
An advocate of sustainable and ethical foods, Lisa is particularly passionate about healthy, organic and wholesome foods and cooking from scratch. She believes in simplicity in the kitchen and loves trying new recipes, drawing inspiration from her travel adventures and her heritage. Although she’s not a vegetarian, Lisa has an appreciation for plant-based cooking and wholefoods and tries to cook vegetarian at home wherever possible.

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