You probably remember that back in the 1980s, fat was routinely vilified. But over the last three decades, the fat-free trend seems to have largely gone the route of big hair and leg warmers, as more and more medical professionals have realized the importance of healthy fats found in foods such as olive oil, nuts, seeds and avocados.
But there’s one area of nutrition where the low-fat fad still seems to reign: dairy. While national health organizations like the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics seem to be adopting a more laid-back attitude toward fat, they still recommend that you stick to skim or low-fat versions of dairy, as do the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
It’s true that unlike the healthy monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats found in olive oil, oily fish and nuts, the saturated fat in dairy products can contribute to heart disease risk, points out Mario Kratz, a Seattle nutrition researcher and founder and director of Nourished by Science. But a review published by Kratz in the also found that people who eat full-fat dairy are no more likely to develop heart disease and type 2 diabetes than those who stick to low-fat or fat-free dairy.
In fact, some studies have even suggested that when it comes to preventing weight gain, full-fat dairy is the way to go. AARP’s Whole Body Reset book recommends eating fortified dairy foods two to three times a day, and not to shy away from full-fat products. But that doesn’t mean you should necessarily load up on butter and ice cream, Kratz cautions. Here’s a closer look at what the research shows and what the experts recommend.
The skinny on full-fat dairy
The research on low-fat versus full-fat dairy goes well beyond weight loss and type 2 diabetes. A study done by Kratz published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 2021 looked at 72 patients with metabolic syndrome — a cluster of conditions that raise the risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes and stroke — and found that a diet rich in full-fat dairy (at least three servings a day) had no effect on blood pressure or cholesterol compared to a diet limited in dairy or rich in low-fat dairy.