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Is Whole Milk Healthier than Fat Free?

Post by Megan Metropulos, MS, RD, LDN

Have you noticed the growing number of whole milk yogurts on grocery store shelves? For many years, the only thing available was fat-free or low fat yogurts. Now we’re adding fat back in? Doesn’t that just mean you’re eating more calories? If you’re wondering whether or not you should make the switch, keep reading. I’ll go over the newest nutrition research and give you my take on the whole milk dairy debate.

Like many of my fellow nutrition nerds, I love browsing the grocery store for new products. A while ago, I started seeing quite a few new whole milk yogurts. Some were new-to-me brands like Noosa, and others were whole milk varieties from some of my go-to favorite brands like Siggi’s and Stonyfield.

whole milk yogurts and cottage cheese

Last year I was still the girl with a cart full of fat-free yogurts. I’d glance at the whole milk yogurts, then shudder when I saw how much saturated fat was in them. Back then, I might throw a two-percent fat yogurt in the cart if I was feeling a little adventurous. It was pretty sad.

Once I read some of the newer nutrition research, I decided to give whole milk yogurt a try. I couldn’t believe the differences in flavor and texture! These days, my cart is filled with whole milk yogurt (and cottage cheese!). Let me explain why I made the switch to team “full-fat,” and why I won’t be going back to my old ways anytime soon.

When I studied nutrition in school, we were taught to encourage most of our patients to choose fat-free dairy products. Those products are lower in calories and saturated fat, which we believed would help them lose weight and lower their cholesterol levels.   

Well, we’ve learned that not all calories are created equal. Nutritional science is awesome because it’s always evolving, but this can be so frustrating for many people. One-day in the news, a certain food will kill you and the next year it’s a cure-all! Just always keep in mind that there’s NO one food that’s a cure-all and that what works for one person isn’t going to work for everyone.

For many years, we’ve heard that saturated fat raises LDL or “bad” cholesterol, and that high LDL cholesterol is a risk factor for heart disease. Interestingly, one study in older adults found that those with higher LDL cholesterol actually had a lower risk of death.

We’ve now learned there are different types of LDL cholesterol. The small, hard particles (think beads) are the harmful ones, while the bigger, fluffier ones (think cotton balls) may be neutral or even beneficial. As far as LDL cholesterol is concerned, milk fat might only increase the number of bigger LDL particles. Additionally, milk fat also raises HDL or “good” cholesterol.

Studies on saturated fat intake and heart disease have had mixed results. Multiple reviews (here, here, and here) haven’t found an association between saturated fat intake and heart disease.

We know that trans fats are BAD, but many people may not realize that there are different types of trans fats. Some are products of food processing (think partially hydrogenated oils), but others occur naturally in certain foods (like dairy). This review found that processed trans fats were associated with heart disease and death from heart disease, but naturally occurring trans fats were not.  

Now that we’ve gotten most of the science-y stuff out of the way, let’s talk about the TASTE.

Sometimes I think I ate my plain, fat-free Greek yogurts just because of their health halo. The truth is, I sometimes struggled through them because they tasted so sour! I hated this, because I wanted the protein, calcium, and probiotics they provide.  

As for the flavored fat-free varieties, many have extra sugar or artificial sweeteners added to try to compensate for the lost fat. Research has shown us that replacing saturated fat with refined carbs (like sugar and white bread) is not beneficial for health

To me, whole milk yogurts taste richer and make breakfast feel more special.

good culture cottage cheese

I like to use the principles of Intuitive Eating with my clients. One of the principles is to discover the satisfaction factor. What nutrient is the most satisfying? Fat! Fat gives your brain the signal that you’re full and keeps you feeling full longer.

Now, if you’re still concerned about the extra calories, one review of observational studies found that eating high-fat dairy foods doesn’t increase risk for obesity, heart disease, or diabetes. In fact, in more than half of the studies researchers looked at, people who consumed high-fat dairy products actually had a lower risk of obesity.

On the flipside, there’s still plenty of research (here and here) that supports decreasing the amount of saturated fat we eat in order to lower heart disease risk. This study showed that replacing saturated fat with polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA) lowers heart disease risk.

So, how am I applying this newer knowledge in my own life and in my work with clients? I usually eat yogurt or cottage cheese for breakfast a few mornings per week. These days, I reach for the whole milk variety. I enjoy a splash of real half-and-half in my coffee. If we go out for ice cream, I don’t feel guilty ordering the real stuff instead of fro-yo.

I encourage my clients to choose foods that are satisfying. Many times, people are surprised that they feel more satisfied with a smaller portion of the “real” thing than any amount of a “diet” or “fat-free” version.

Do I think saturated fat is a nutrition all-star? No, but I’m also not sure it’s the villain we’ve made it out to be. For many people, feeling guilty or unsatisfied when they eat are bigger issues than what they’re actually eating.

For now, I’ll continue to enjoy whole milk dairy products in moderation. But like Oscar Wilde said, “Everything in moderation, including moderation.”


Briggs, M. A., Petersen, K. S., & Kris-Etherton, P. M. (2017, june 21). Saturated fatty acids and cardiovascular disease: Replacements for saturated fat to reduce cardiovascular risk. Healthcare, 5(2). Retrieved from http://www.mdpi.com/2227-9032/5/2/29/htm

Chowdhury, R., Warnakula, S., Kunutsor, S., Crowe, F., Ward, H. A., Johnson, L., . . . Di Angelantonio, E. (2014). Association of dietary, circulating, and supplement fatty acids with coronary risk: A systematic review and meta-analysis [Abstract]. Annals of Internal Medicine, 160(6), 398-406. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMH0063835/

De Souza, R. J., Mente, A., Maroleanu, A., Cozma, A. I., Ha, V., Kishibe, T., . . . Anand, S. S. (2015, August 12). Intake of saturated and trans unsaturated fatty acids and risk of all cause mortality, cardiovascular disease, and type 2 diabetes: Systematic review and meta-analysis of observational studies. BMJ. Retrieved from http://www.bmj.com/content/351/bmj.h3978.long

German, J. B., Gibson, R. A., Krauss, R. M., Nestel, P., Lamarche, B., van Staveren, W. A., … Destaillats, F. (2009). A reappraisal of the impact of dairy foods and milk fat on cardiovascular disease risk. European Journal of Nutrition48(4), 191–203. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2695872/#CR93

Giles-Smith, K. (n.d.). Milk fat does a body good. Retrieved from http://www.todaysdietitian.com/news/exclusive0912.shtml

Hooper, L., Martin, N., Abdelhamid, A., & Smith, G. D. (2015). Reduction in saturated fat intake for cardiovascular disease. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, (6). Retrieved from http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/14651858.CD011737/full

Jakobsen, M. U., Dethlefsen, C., Joensen, A. M., Stegger, J., Tjonneland, A., Schmidt, E. B., & Overvad, K. (2010, April 7). Intake of carbohydrates compared with intake of saturated fatty acids and risk of myocardial infarction: importance of the glycemic index. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 91(6), 1764-1768. Retrieved from http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/91/6/1764.full

Jakobsen, M. U., Oreilly, E. J., Heitmann, B. L., Pereira, M. A., Balter, K., Fraser, G. E., . . . Ascherio, A. (2009, February 11). Major types of dietary fat and risk of coronary heart disease: A pooled analysis of 11 cohort studies. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 89(5), 1425-1432. Retrieved from http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/89/5/1425.full#aff-1

Kratz, M., Baars, T., & Guyenet, S. (2012, July 19). The relationship between high-fat dairy consumption and obesity, cardiovascular, and metabolic disease [Abstract]. European Journal of Nutrition, 52(1), 1-24. Retrieved from https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs00394-012-0418-1

Ravnskov, U., Diamond, D. M., Hama, R., Hamazaki, T., Hammarskjöld, B., Hynes, N., . . . Sundberg, R. (2016, June 12). Lack of an association or an inverse association between low-density-lipoprotein cholesterol and mortality in the elderly: A systematic review. BMJ Open, 6(6). Retrieved from http://bmjopen.bmj.com/content/6/6/e010401

Siri-Tarino, P. W., Sun, Q., Hu, F. B., & Krauss, R. M. (2010, March). Meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies evaluating the association of saturated fat with cardiovascular disease. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 91(3), 535-546. Retrieved from http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/91/3/535.long

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