Many of us grew up believing that skim-milk and low-fat yogurt were healthier than their full-fat equivalents. In recent years, however, multiple scientific studies have suggested that full-fat dairy products are either just as good as low-fat dairy products, or even better. They may reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes.
A 2019 study of American Indians found that full-fat dairy consumption was associated with a lower rate of diabetes. (Low-fat dairy consumption was not associated with diabetes risk one way or the other). Perhaps those that didn’t eat much full-fat dairy were replacing those calories with less healthy options, like sweetened sodas?
A 2020 review found that full-fat dairy intake had a “neutral or inverse association with adverse cardiometabolic health outcomes, including atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and associated risk factors,” and that traditional recommendations to choose low-fat dairy products were “not obviously supported by results.”
A 2021 randomized controlled trial – the gold standard of health and diet research – found that full-fat dairy and low-fat dairy had basically equivalent metabolic effects.
In 2016, Time reported on some intriguing research that shows why we may reduce our type 2 diabetes risk by indulging in full-fat dairy versus low-fat dairy
Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian and his team studied blood samples of 3,333 adults participating in the Nurses’ Health Study of Professionals Follow-up Study derived over approximately 15 years. The study found that the adults with higher levels of three byproducts of full-fat diary also averaged to have a 46% lower risk of developing type 2 diabetes during the length of the study than those who had lower levels which indicated a lower consumption of full-fat diary.
Dr. Mozaffarian told Time, “I think these findings together with those from other studies do call for a change in the policy of recommending only low-fat dairy products,” and that “there is no prospective human evidence that people who eat low-fat dairy do better than people who eat whole-fat dairy.”
Dr. Mozaffarian controlled for weight in this study and discovered that regardless of weight gain, full-fat dairy intake still lowered a person’s type 2 diabetes risk.
The Time magazine story also mentioned another study from the American Journal of Nutrition, in which a team of researchers compared the effects of full-fat and low-fat dairy on obesity. This study involving 18,438 women found that the women eating the most high-fat dairy products lowered their risk of being overweight or obese by 8%.
Why Were We Told to Avoid Full-fat Diary to Begin With?
Full-fat dairy contains more fat and more calories than low-fat dairy. For example, one container of the popular greek yogurt, Fage Total contains 190 calories, whereas their 0% fat option contains 100 calories. Their 2% fat option contains 150 calories. Health experts have thought that reducing calories from fat would reduce a person’s risk for diabetes and other metabolic issues.
The problem is, however, that when people lower their calories from fat, they tend to add those calories back into their diet by eating something else – such as added sugar.
Fat is No Longer Considered the Enemy
Expert recommendations on fat consumption are now starting to change en masse. For decades, the standard advice was to focus on limiting fat in one’s diet. That advice seems to have done nothing to stem the tide of the global rise in both obesity and type 2 diabetes.
Fats do have more calories than protein or carbohydrates, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that fats are more fattening. Hunger really matters for weight loss, maintenance, and gain – and high-fat meals and ingredients can be powerfully satisfying. That may be especially true for high-fat ingredients that are less processed, like many full-fat dairy products. Our nutrition authorities didn’t realize that when they asked people to reduce fat, people would inevitably replace those calories, often with “hyperpalatable” junk foods.
The diet experts are now more eager to recommend balanced approaches. People are being advised to eat “real food” and told that they would do well to more carefully watch their sugar and processed carbohydrate intake versus their fat intake. Trendy dieters are now emphasizing extra-virgin olive oil and coconut oil instead of vegetable oils.
Dr. Mozaffarian added, “This is just one more piece of evidence showing that we really need to stop making recommendations about food based on theories about one nutrient in food … it’s crucial at this time to understand that it’s about food as a whole, and not about single nutrients.”
So Why Might Full-fat Dairy Be Better for Diabetes Risk Factors?
Experts can’t say exactly how full-fat dairy reduces a person’s diabetes risks. Perhaps full-fat dairy foods are simply healthier than lower-fat foods that most people would otherwise eat, such as breakfast cereals, fruit juice, or soda. These foods, high in simple refined starches and sugars like fructose, can provoke us to overeat because their calories are less satisfying.
Time reported other potential mechanisms at play: “It’s also possible that the fats in dairy may be acting directly on cells, working on the liver and muscle to improve their ability to break down sugar from food. And then there’s the possibility that for certain high fat dairy foods, like cheese, which is fermented, microbes may be working to improve insulin response and lower diabetes risk too.”
Dr. Mozaffarian believes that the dietary recommendations need to be rewritten:
In the absence of any evidence for the superior effects of low fat dairy, and some evidence that there may be better benefits of whole fat dairy products for diabetes, why are we recommending only low fat diary? We should be telling people to eat a variety of dairy and remove the recommendation about fat content.