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Is Whole Milk Better Than Low-Fat and Skim Milk?

Glass Bottle and Glass of Milk

Milk is one of the most nutritious beverages on the planet.

That’s why it’s a staple in school lunches and is a popular
beverage for people of all ages.

For decades, nutrition guidelines have recommended only low-fat
dairy products for everyone over the age of two (1).

However, in recent years, scientists have called that
recommendation into question.

Recent studies suggest that skim might not always be the
healthiest option when it comes to milk.

Different Types of Milk: Whole, Low-Fat and Skim

There are several types of milk available
in the dairy aisle of most grocery stores.

They mainly differ in their fat content. Whole milk is
sometimes referred to as “regular milk” because the amount of
fat in it has not been altered. Skim and 1% milk are produced
by removing fat from whole milk.

Fat content is measured as a percentage of the total liquid, by
weight.

Here are the fat contents of popular milk varieties:

  • Whole milk: 3.25% milk fat.
  • Low-fat milk: 1% milk fat.
  • Skim: Less than 0.5% milk fat.

This table summarizes the nutrients in one cup (237 ml) of
several milk varieties:

Skim Milk Low-Fat Milk Whole Milk
Calories 83 102 146
Carbs 12.5 g 12.7 g 12.8 g
Protein 8.3 g 8.2 g 7.9 g
Fat 0.2 g 2.4 g 7.9 g
Saturated Fat 0.1 g 1.5 g 4.6 g
Omega-3s 2.5 mg 9.8 mg 183 mg
Calcium 306 mg 290 mg 276 mg
Vitamin D 100 IU 127 IU 97.6 IU

Because fat has more calories by weight than any other
nutrient, milk with a higher fat content has more calories
(2, 3, 4).

Vitamin
D
is another nutrient that can differ depending on the fat
content. It’s a fat-soluble vitamin, so in milk it’s naturally
present only in the fat. However, most milk manufacturers add
vitamin D to milk, so every type has a similar vitamin D
content.

As you may have noticed, one of the most significant
nutritional differences between the milk varieties is their
omega-3 content.

Omega-3 fatty acids have been linked to
many health benefits
, including improved heart and brain
health and a lower risk of cancer. The more fat a cup of milk
has in it, the higher its omega-3 content (5, 6).

Additionally, studies have shown that organic whole milk
contains an even higher amount of omega-3s than regular whole
milk (7).

Bottom Line: The major difference between
the types of milk available is their fat content. Whole milk
contains more fat and calories than skim milk.

Why Is Whole Milk Sometimes Considered Unhealthy?

Two Hands Each Holding a Glass of Milk

For years, nutrition guidelines have been instructing people to
avoid whole milk, mainly due to its saturated
fat
content.

Mainstream nutrition recommendations advise limiting saturated
fat due to its supposed connection to heart disease.

Some studies have shown that saturated fat raises cholesterol
levels, and researchers know that high cholesterol levels are
associated with an increased risk of heart disease (8).

Based on this information, experts made the assumption that
saturated fat must increase the risk of heart disease. However,
there was no experimental evidence to prove that this was true
(8).

In the 1970s, public policy was adopted based on this assumed
connection between saturated fat and heart disease. As a
result, official guidelines instructed people to reduce their
saturated fat intake.

A cup (237 ml) of whole milk contains 4.6 grams of saturated
fat, which is about 20% of the daily amount recommended by the
2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (1).

For this reason, the guidelines recommend consuming only
low-fat or skim milk (2).

In recent years, this recommendation has been called into
question. There is now plenty of experimental data to indicate
that eating saturated fat does not cause heart disease
(8).

Bottom Line: In the past, whole milk was
considered to be unhealthy because of its saturated fat
content, but recent research does not support this
recommendation.

Do You Really Need to Fear Saturated Fat?

A Glass of Milk

There is very little scientific evidence that suggests you
should be avoiding saturated fat in your diet (9, 10).

In fact, a review of 21 studies concluded that there is no
significant evidence that saturated fat increases the risk of
heart disease (11).

The old hypothesis is that saturated fat increases cholesterol
levels and high cholesterol levels increase the risk of heart
disease.

However, the relationship between saturated fat and cholesterol
is more complicated than that.

Saturated fat does increase your blood levels of low-density
lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, which is known as “bad”
cholesterol.

But what is often ignored is that saturated fat also raises
levels of high-density
lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol
, the “good” cholesterol. HDL
has a protective effect against heart disease (8, 12).

Additionally, not all LDL is dangerous.

There are different types of LDL and it’s the very small, dense
particles of LDL that have the most damaging effects on the
heart and arteries (13, 14, 15, 16, 17).

Interestingly, saturated fat actually changes LDL from the
small, dense particles to the large, less harmful particles
(18, 19).

Bottom Line: There is no solid evidence that
saturated fat increases the risk of heart disease. Saturated
fat does increase LDL, but not the most damaging type of LDL.
It also raises good HDL levels.

Drinking Whole Milk May Actually Help You Manage Your Weight

Many people avoid drinking whole milk because they assume the
extra fat and calories will cause them to gain
weight
.

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Interestingly, the opposite is probably true. Many studies have
shown that consuming high-fat dairy products, such as whole
milk, may actually help prevent weight gain.

In one review, 11 out of 16 studies found an association
between consuming high-fat dairy and a lower risk of obesity
(20).

One very large study noted that women who consumed the highest
amounts of high-fat dairy products were the least likely to
become overweight over time (21).

Another study of 1,782 men found that those who had a high
intake of high-fat dairy products had a 48% lower risk of
developing abdominal obesity, compared to men who had a medium
intake.

In the same study, the men who had a low intake of high-fat
dairy products had a 53% higher risk of abdominal obesity
(22).

This is significant because abdominal obesity, in which fat
accumulates around the waistline, may be the worst kind of
weight gain.

Studies have found that having fat around your middle majorly
increases your risk of dying from heart disease and cancer
(23, 24).

The relationship between milk and weight management has been a
topic of research for several years and findings have been
inconsistent.

However, most of these studies either include all types of
dairy products or focus on low-fat dairy (25, 26, 27).

In studies that look at only high-fat dairy products, like
whole milk, there is a pretty consistent connection between
high-fat dairy and lower body weight.

A study of nearly 20,000 women found that those who consumed
more than one serving of whole milk per day were 15% less
likely to gain weight over a period of nine years than women
who drank no milk or low-fat milk (28).

Bottom Line: People who drink whole milk
tend to weigh less. There is no evidence that drinking whole
milk instead of skim will make you gain weight.

Whole Milk May Lower Your Risk of Chronic Disease

Plastic Jug of Milk

Not only is there no scientific evidence proving that the
saturated fat in whole milk causes heart disease, but several
studies have shown that drinking whole milk is associated with
health benefits.

Multiple studies have shown that drinking whole milk is
associated with a lower risk of metabolic syndrome.

Metabolic syndrome is the name given to a group of risk
factors, including
insulin resistance
, abdominal obesity, low HDL levels and
high triglyceride levels.

When these risk factors are present together, your risk of
diabetes and heart disease is high (29).

A study of more than 1,800 people found that adults with the
highest intake of high-fat dairy products had a 59% lower risk
of metabolic syndrome than adults with the lowest intake
(30).

A 2016 study of nearly 10,000 adults found that high-fat dairy
products are associated with decreased markers of metabolic
syndrome. The study found no beneficial effects associated with
low-fat dairy (31).

The fatty acids in whole milk are likely responsible for its
health benefits.

In one large study, people with the highest amount of
dairy-derived fatty acids in their bloodstreams had a 44% lower
rate of diabetes than those with the lowest amount (32).

Drinking whole milk may have other notable benefits including

increased fertility
and a lower risk of colon cancer.
However, the evidence is not strong (33, 34).

Bottom Line: Drinking whole milk may
actually have some health benefits, including lowering the
risk of metabolic syndrome.

The Main Advantage of Skim Milk Is Its Lower Calorie Count

Measuring Tape Wrapped Around Three Glasses of Milk

There are some situations where skim milk may be the best
choice for your diet.

If you’re following a very-low-calorie diet, for example, the
extra 63 calories
you will get from drinking a cup (237 ml) of whole milk instead
of skim might be more than you can afford.

Skim milk also offers the advantage of being a relatively
low-calorie source of protein. Both whole milk and skim milk
contain around 8 grams of protein per cup.

However, in whole milk, protein makes up only 22% of the
calories, whereas it makes up 39% of the calories in skim milk.

Skim milk is “nutrient-dense,” meaning it provides a large dose
of vitamins and minerals with very few calories.

In fact, skim milk is one of the richest
food sources of calcium
, providing around 300 mg per cup.
This is even higher than the calcium content of whole milk,
which is 276 mg per cup.

If you need to boost your calcium intake but can’t afford a lot
of additional calories in your diet, skim milk is the way to
go.

Bottom Line: Skim milk provides all the
protein and calcium that whole milk does, but with
significantly fewer calories.

Take Home Message

The recommendation to avoid whole milk may have been popular in
the past, but it isn’t supported by science.

There may be some circumstances where skim milk is the best
choice, but for most people, whole milk offers clear
nutritional advantages over skim and low-fat milk.

Drinking whole milk on a regular basis may help you manage your
weight over time and lower your risk of metabolic syndrome.

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