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Can Dairy Fat Curb Body Fat?

Ask the Expert
Can Dairy Fat Curb Body Fat?: Main Image
Full-fat dairy contains potentially “slimming” nutrients, which may help the body burn fat more efficiently while preserving muscle tissue

When you reach for a glass of milk, should you choose skim? Is whole milk a guilty pleasure? For years, health experts have promoted lower-fat dairy as the healthier choice, but it’s time to look at this issue anew.

In a recent 12-year study of nearly 1,600 middle-aged Swedish men, those who ate the most full-fat dairy—think butter, whole milk, and whipping cream—were significantly less likely to develop “central obesity” than men opting for low-fat dairy. (Central obesity, fat in the mid-section, is considered more damaging to health than body fat carried elsewhere.)

Studies on children mirror these findings, and in one of the larger analyses of the existing medical literature, 11 of 16 studies linked high-fat dairy consumption with lower likelihood of obesity markers. As Greg Miller, executive vice president of the National Dairy Council told NPR, “it’s counterintuitive.” But a closer look may help explain:

  • Full-fat dairy contains potentially “slimming” nutrients, including a naturally occurring fat called conjugated linoleic acid (CLA).
  • Some research suggests CLA provides metabolic benefits, helping the body burn fat more efficiently while preserving precious muscle tissue.
  • Further, fat is very satisfying; it stays with us longer than carbohydrates or protein, and may help us eat less at later meals and snacks.

Does this mean people should ditch the skim milk and nonfat yogurt?

That depends.

  • After a sweat session—be it your gym workout or your child’s soccer match—the best way to replenish and repair muscles is to get protein and carbohydrates into the body quickly. Dietary fat slows carbohydrate and protein absorption, so in this case, skim is the way to go.
  • Since full-fat dairy contains potentially beneficial nutrients such as CLA, and may also help us eat less at later meals and snacks, when not concerned with “refueling” after exercise, full-fat dairy is a reasonable choice.
  • Remember, the original preference given to low-fat dairy arose from concern about saturated fat and risk of heart disease—and full-fat dairy contains plenty of saturated fat, which can raise cholesterol levels. So, many experts agree that people with high cholesterol should continue to go the low-fat route.
Today’s expert advice provided by Suzanne Dixon, MPH, MS, RD, an author, speaker, and internationally recognized expert in chronic disease prevention, epidemiology, and nutrition., Suzanne has delivered over 200 invited lectures to health professionals and consumers and is the creator of a nutrition website acclaimed by the New York Times and Time magazine. She received her training in epidemiology and nutrition at the University of Michigan, School of Public Health at Ann Arbor.

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