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Trying to lose weight? Why full-fat dairy may help you hit your goal

Guidelines from U.S. Department of Agriculture have encouraged consumption of low- and non-fat dairy products for decades. But does the science back this up?
/ Source: TODAY

For decades, nutrition experts have steered Americans away from whole milk and other full-fat dairy products, but research over the past decade or so should lead to a change in that advice, some experts say.

While the 2020-2025 guidelines from the U.S. Department of Agriculture continue to encourage consumption of low-fat and fat-free dairy products, cardiologists and nutrition specialists tell TODAY.com that this recommendation may not be aligned with the most recent science.

In addition, they say there may be reason to believe that consuming a lot of non-fat and low-fat dairy could play a role weight gain and increase risk of certain diseases.

The USDA told TODAY.com in a statement that the 2020 dietary guidelines were based on "a full review of the body of scientific evidence available at the time," which found that a diet with higher amounts of low-fat dairy or lower amounts of high-fat dairy — along with fruits, vegetables, whole grains and protein — "led to better health outcomes related to cardiovascular disease, Type 2 diabetes, obesity, bone health and certain cancers."

The USDA added that its 2025 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee is currently reviewing evidence on "how dairy milk and milk alternatives with different levels of fat" impact Type 2 diabetes and obesity risk — as well as "how different food sources of saturated fat" impact heart disease risk. This research (and more) will inform future recommendations for the dairy and fortified soy alternatives food group, the USDA said. 

Low-fat diets and obesity on the rise

The suggestion that people cut as much fat from their diets as possible emerged in the '80s. “There was a lot of fat-bashing,” Dr. Zhaoping Li, professor of medicine and chief of the division of clinical nutrition at the University of California, Los Angeles, tells TODAY.com.

Running with the theory that fatty deposits in the arteries, which increase risk of heart disease, must be the result of a high-fat diet, the USDA came out with official recommendations to reduce fat intake in the 1980 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration defines non-fat as less than .05 grams of fat per serving and low-fat as 3 grams or less per serving.

The guidelines led companies to offer low-fat or fat-free foods, and often, to keep foods tasting good, companies increased the amount of sugar in their products, Li says.

The idea that cutting fat would make people healthier and thinner caught on — even though genetics may actually play a bigger role in fatty deposits in the blood, some research shows. Among other things, opting for non- or low-fat made food choices simpler, cardiologist Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian tells TODAY.com: Just cut back on one ingredient and you'll be healthier.

“Americans adopted the low-fat diet because nutrition scientists and the government recommended it, and because of the simple intuitiveness of the notion — now proven incorrect — that eating fat makes you fat,” says Mozaffarian, professor of nutrition at Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University in Boston.

Also in the 1980s, obesity started to become an epidemic in the U.S., research shows.

“While the precise contributions of different factors to the obesity epidemic need further study, it’s clear that the demonization of fat led Americans to eat a higher proportion of calories from refined, ultra-processed grains and added sugar,” Mozaffarian explains. “Now we know that these are among the worst factors for causing weight gain, insulin resistance and metabolic syndrome.”

Growing research shows low-fat dairy doesn't prevent heart disease, cancer or diabetes

One of the first studies to question the adequacy of low-fat diets was the Women’s Health Initiative in 2006. It found that, when it came to the risk for cancer, heart disease and diabetes, it made no difference whether a person was consuming a low-fat or low-saturated fat diet, Mozaffarian says.

That trial followed 48,835 women who were between 50 and 79 when they joined the study. They were divided into two groups, and those in the intervention group were asked to lower their fat intake to 24% of total calories, while the comparison group consumed their regular diet, which, on average, contained 35% fat.

Three publications resulted from the trial’s low-fat intervention. Those trials found low-fat diets did not reduce the risk of invasive breast cancer, colorectal cancer or cardiovascular disease

Within the past few years, a raft of studies have been published showing that not only were non- or low-fat options not making people healthier, but in some cases, they also might be causing harm.

A study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 2021, suggested that, in people who already had heart disease risk factors, full-fat dairy had no impact on lipid (fatty acid) levels or blood pressure.

A 2020 study published in Advanced Nutrition found that full-fat dairy not only had no impact on the risk of heart disease, but also that certain full-fat diary choices, including yogurt and cheese, appeared to protect against heart disease and Type 2 diabetes.

A study co-authored by Mozaffarian revealed that people with higher levels of full-fat dairy biomarkers (which indicate how much full-fat dairy a person consumes) had a lower risk of stroke during a follow-up of 20 years.

The case for full-fat dairy is especially strong for children, Li says. A study that followed 4,699 children aged 9 months to 8 years found that kids who consumed full-fat milk had a 16% lower risk of becoming overweight and an 18% lower risk of becoming obese compared to children who consumed reduced-fat milk.

What are the cons of eating lots of low-fat dairy?

If you take fat out of the diet, children and adults alike are going to replace those calories with carbohydrates, which can lead to a surge in insulin, Li says. “That alone can make you feel more hungry.”

Also, many low- and non-fat products have higher sugar levels to improve the taste, she adds. High sugar consumption can lead to high blood pressure, obesity, stroke, gout, cancer, asthma, depression and early death, TODAY.com previously reported.

Full-fat dairy can also help with feeling full longer, especially for kids, Li says.

While there may be some fats that can be harmful to health, “not all fat is created equal,” Linda Van Horn, Ph.D., chief of nutrition at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, tells TODAY.com.

“Dairy fat is likely very different from beef or chicken fat,” she adds. “It may very well be that it has different biological influences that we don’t know about yet. However, data we have at suggest that butter is the exception in that it appears to have an adverse influence on health.”

Is full-fat or non-fat dairy better for weight loss?

Moffazarian says, based on current data, it looks like full- and non-fat dairy products have an equal impact on weight loss. But in the end, it may turn out that full fat is better.