When it comes to dairy, you have the choice of skim or full fat and a plethora of options in the middle. But the question still lingers — which is best for your health and your waistline?
For more than a decade health authorities have insisted adults go lean and ditch the cream. Even the latest dietary guidelines for Australians still make this message clear.
But recent research, based on a large population study shows that full-fat dairy isn't so bad for you after all — that is, full fat drinkers tend to weigh less and have a reduced risk of diabetes.
Should guidelines be changed?
Before we criticise national dietary recommendations it's important to understand why low fat dairy is still advised. Full cream dairy foods are a significant source of saturated fat and over the last few decades the focus has been on reducing this type of fat in our diets to stave off heart attacks — this meant all sources of saturated fat were evil, including full cream milk.
However, it is now well known that not all fats are equal, and certain types of saturated fats don't raise LDL cholesterol (as previously thought) — and if it comes from dairy, studies are now showing it may have a protective role.
We now understand that making recommendations based on a single nutrient is getting us nowhere. We don't eat nutrients like saturated fat in isolation. Rather, it's the type of food as a whole and the other nutrients present within that food that makes a difference as to how that food affects health.
In other words, no foods are nutritionally equivalent if you're judging only their content of saturated fat.
So if you were to compare butter to full-cream milk, the research is clear that the fat extracted from milk to make butter does raise LDL-cholesterol, however when present along with calcium and protein (as in dairy foods), it does not.
Why choose skim?
Wondering if there's any value in reduced-fat dairy? The simple answer is yes, particularly if you want to curb calories. A glass of full cream milk contains almost 10 grams of fat and roughly 738 kilojoules compared to reduced fat or skim, which has between two grams and zero grams of fat and between 495 — 375 kilojoules.
Secondly, lower-fat milks are slightly higher in calcium and protein than regular milk, and don't have added sugar as commonly perceived.
The down side? You'll absorb less of the nutrients in milk without the fat, particularly the fat soluble vitamins such as vitamin D, A and E. Fat also slows down digestion which gives a lasting feeling of fullness, and studies have found that when people reduce how much fat they eat, they tend to bulk up on other calorific foods, including carbs and sugar, which can give us a much higher risk of diabetes (not to mention the waistline) in the long run.
Reducing the fat in your milk is one thing, but if you continue to cook with butter, eat pies and have a coffee with a banana bread, your risk of heart disease or diabetes is not likely to be any lower, if anything probably worse.
If you eat plenty of fruits, vegetables, wholegrains, nuts and less processed foods, then there's no difference between the skim and full fat — in which case it all boils down to your personal taste preference.
Kathleen Alleaume is a nutritionist and exercise scientist and founder of The Right Balance.