What should you choose, full-fat or nonfat dairy?

fat or nonfat yogurt?

Hey there! 

I somewhat bashfully admit that yogurt has got to be my number one comfort food. A little weird, I know.

The thing is, I grew up in very rural, northern Vermont (a region known locally as the Northeast Kingdom - so called both in appreciation of the natural beauty and in irony due to the relative poverty of the region). Anyone who visits will see quickly that cows rule this kingdom - there are definitely more cows than people. All this to say, I got milk - and all that milk makes; cheese, yogurt, cottage cheese - I am all about it. 

Dairy is also a super nutrient-dense, health-food. If you are not lactose intolerant, then dairy products are the most bioavailable way to get essential nutrients and lean protein. Check out this Calcium Calculator to make sure you're getting enough. 

dairy cow

Full-fat dairy may curb your appetite

In case you have not heard, full-fat dairy is in. Looking to eat less processed foods, there is a growing number of health-nuts proclaiming that full-fat dairy is better than nonfat (the idea being that removing the fat is a form of processing). One could also argue that adding bacteria to milk to form yogurt or cheese is also processing, but let's not go there. 

There are definitely people who find full-fat dairy more satisfying, helping them to curb their appetite. There is even research showing that this is a thing. It is definitely worth an experiment to see for yourself if nonfat or full-fat helps you to feel more satisfied.

Full-fat dairy may also increase inflammation and your risk of heart disease

The tricky part is that the healthfulness of full-fat dairy depends on what the cows ate. 

  • Organic/Grass-fed Dairy: If the cows get to frolic about in the fresh air and munch on grass, the milk they produce will have a higher content of omega-3 fats, those anti-inflammatory, heart-protective, "good" fats. The organic label requires that the cows have a certain amount of time outside. Here is a great NPR piece explaining how organic dairy can help protect against weight gain and chronic disease. 
  • Conventional Dairy: On the flip side, if those cows are shoved in a barn and stuffed with corn, their milk has more of the inflammatory, "bad" fats. In humans, weight gain occurs as the number of fat cells increase, but also as inflammation causes fat cells to enlarge, an irreversible process. 
  • Toxins. Another scary factor is that many toxins are sequestered in fat stores. Full-fat products produced organically are likely to have fewer toxins, thus a safer choice. Then again, nonfat eliminates that concern all together.  

Heart Disease Risk: Regardless of the cow's diet, if you have high cholesterol or other risk factors for heart disease, dairy fat is one of the leading sources of cholesterol-raising saturated fats. If you fall into this category, health professionals recommend nonfat dairy. 

full fat or nonfat yogurt

So now, we've got a conundrum. Full-fat may be more satisfying, but it can also be linked to inflammation and heart disease. What's a girl to do?! (Every woman I coach asks me that question!)

Here is what this health-nut recommends: 

  1. Get your calcium and vitamin D. You need 2 to 3 servings of dairy per day (or other foods that provide 1,000 mg of Ca + 800 IU of vitamin D). 
  2. Choose nonfat dairy, most of the time.  Given the association with heart disease, why take the risk? As a rule of thumb, nonfat is the safest choice. 
  3. If you get full-fat, get organic. If nonfat just will not do, like you need half & half in your coffee or you just cannot stand the taste of nonfat cottage cheese, then go for the organic option. 

Hope this helps you navigate the wild world of the dairy case! (We'll have to tackle milk-alternatives in a future blog...)

More questions? Send them our way via a comment below or email joinus@eatwithzest.com

Off to find my yogurt snack ;) 

With love & zest,

Anna