You’re at the supermarket doing your grocery shopping. Next on the list: milk and yoghurt. You head towards the fridges and take in the wide range of options. Full-cream, low-fat, skim and fat-free… Even 1%. You pick up the full cream options at first but then you think about all the extra fat and calories you’re going to consume. You then opt for the low fat and fat-free versions because you’re sure it’s the healthy thing to do. Is this still the right choice? The latest research is now challenging the recommendations of avoiding full fat dairy as it may in fact be beneficial to your health.


Milk fat contains more than 400 different building blocks of fat know as fatty acids. The fatty acid breakdown of whole milk is about 62% saturated, 30% monounsaturated, 4% polyunsaturated, and 4% other types such as naturally occurring trans fatty acids.

When faced with the dilemma of full fat intake and the risk of coronary heart disease, it is important to identify the different biological effects of each type of fatty acid. Saturated fats and trans fats are the two main fats that come under the spotlight when “bad” fats are mentioned. Let’s take a look at what the research says.

A recent analysis of the research on saturated fat revealed that there is no significant evidence to prove that dietary saturated fat increases risk of coronary heart disease or cardiovascular disease1. One study in particular has yielded results to show that a higher intake of specifically dairy saturated fats was associated with lower risk of cardiovascular disease2. These studies echo the statement from the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee that regardless of the fat level, milk and milk products consumption is associated with lower blood pressure and a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes.

So what about the effect on your cholesterol levels? Research reveals that milk may increase total and LDL cholesterol (bad cholesterol) however it may also raise HDL cholesterol (good cholesterol), thus resulting in a neutral effect3.

There are two types of trans fats, industrial trans fatty acids and naturally occurring trans fatty acids. Industrial trans fatty acids are produced when liquid vegetable oil is converted into a solid. This type of trans fat is known to increase the risk of heart disease. The same cannot be said for naturally occurring trans fatty acids which are found in cow’s milk as well as goat and sheep milk. Humans convert vaccenic acid (the main trans fatty acid in dairy) into rumenic acid.  Rumenic acid is the biologically active form of conjugated linoleic acid. It is worth noting that during the process of removing fat from dairy products, rumenic acid is also removed. Studies show that conjugated linoleic acid in milk may potentially have numerous health benefits. More research is needed in terms of the effects in humans in order to make bold statements about the benefits of conjugated linoleic acid.  Published reviews have however identified potential benefits for cardiovascular disease, bone health and cancer prevention4.

When examined holistically, studies comparing full fat dairy with low-fat dairy have revealed that full fat dairy is associated with a lower risk of obesity5. The proposed explanation for this is that people who drink low-fat dairy compensate for the missing fat with other foods, thus leading to a higher intake of calories and weight gain.

There is no significant evidence to prove that dietary saturated fat increases risk of coronary heart disease or cardiovascular disease. Milk consumption regardless of fat level may lower risk of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and lower blood pressure. It also has a neutral effect on your cholesterol levels.

Cow, goat and sheep milk contains naturally occurring trans fatty acids. Humans convert the main trans fatty acid in dairy into a potentially beneficial trans fat called rumenic acid. Rumenic acid is however removed during the fat removal process from dairy products. Consumption of full fat dairy has also been linked to a lower risk of obesity.

What is the trick to the type of dairy you pick?

Now that you’ve heard the case for full fat dairy, the lesson to be learnt is that recommendations that look at single nutrients need to be examined carefully. Although there is now clear evidence that full fat dairy is not harmful to your health as originally thought, this does not mean that it is the most suitable option for everyone.

Every individual has different nutritional requirements based on their weight, height, activity level and stress factors such as hypermetabolism. It is therefore important to keep these nutritional requirements in mind when you look at your total calorie intake as well as the source of these calories.

For children, healthy fats play an essential role in growth and development. They require sufficient amounts of good fats for their nervous system and brain to develop normally. In this case, full fat dairy in the correct amount may be the most suitable option. Individuals with increased energy requirements may also benefit from the use of full fat dairy.

Conversely, low-fat or fat- free dairy may still be the most beneficial option for weight management. Although the studies mentioned earlier stated that full fat dairy is linked to a lower risk of obesity, this does not necessarily mean that it is the best option for weight management.  The participants of these studies who consumed low-fat dairy did not control their total calorie intake and compensated for the missing calories in the dairy with other foods. If your goal is to lose weight, your nutritional requirements will be lower. Consuming the correct amount of low-fat or fat-free dairy in combination with a healthy, balanced diet will help you to limit your calorie intake and assist in weight management.


The extremely common fear of full-fat dairy is proving to be unprecedented. Next time you go grocery shopping and you’re in the predicament of which dairy option to pick, think about your individual nutritional requirements and choose the type of dairy best suited to your needs.


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