What’s best: full fat vs. low fat dairy products? Part 2

In my last post, I presented the research which shows that although saturated fat may not be the dietary demon once thought, it also doesn’t offer the health perks found in unsaturated fat such as extra virgin olive oil and canola oil. But the question is what about dairy products such as cheese, yogurt and milk – which is best – full-fat or lower fat?

When choosing dairy products, while nutrition is a big factor, taste and flavour has to enter into the choice too. After all, healthy eating is about nutrition and pleasure. But more on that later.

There has been plenty of confusion about saturated fat and its role in healthy eating. I said it in my last post and I’ll say it again – just because it’s not  as damaging to our health as previously thought, it still doesn’t offer any benefit to our health compared to  unsaturated fat.

But wait, what about the research linking whole milk or full-fat dairy products protecting against weight gain and obesity? Isn’t that a health benefit?

Well, it’s not that simple.  While the research shows that study subjects who consumed the higher fat products were less likely to gain weight, it’s not due to only dairy fat that this occurs.  It’s due to the effect of fat itself on satiety.  Low fat diets, unless packed with plenty of fibre, are not very satisfying. The result can be overeating.

We saw this phenomenon occur during the days of fat phobia.  It was a time when  nutrition recommendations suggested eating less fat.  But as was pointed out at the recent   Oldways’ Common Ground consensus conference in Boston,  the public was left in limbo as they didn’t know what to eat instead.  Food companies responded with an astounding array of fat-free options such as cookies and chips.

It was the era of the fat-free carb and cookie frenzy and a time when the numbers on the scale, for many people, started skyrocketing.

As a result of this basic flaw in making nutrition recommendations,   the scientists at the Common Ground Conference   strongly endorsed the general principle of specifying practical dietary substitutions when dietary recommendations are made.

Instead of simply saying to eat less of something, it’s key to suggest what we should replace those foods with. That’s not to say that the recommendation to eat less fat was correct but had the dietary advice been accompanied by the  guidance to eat vegetables, fruit and whole grains instead, we would never have come  through the fat phobia era with all that extra weight gained.

In any case, the lesson learned by many during this fat folly was that dietary fat is important to achieve satiety. Too little fat in a meal can leave you looking for more eats in too short a time.

So while full fat dairy products may help tame your hunger, there’s plenty of evidence that combining lower fat dairy products along with healthy fats can not only be a better choice (saturated fat versus unsaturated) but it can also contribute to feeling full in the same way that higher fat dairy products do.   So instead of a full fat yogurt with fruit, in my books, a smarter choice would be a lower-fat yogurt with fruit and some chopped nuts.

Same amount of fat but a different fat profile.

There’s also the issue of  calories.  Simply eating a smaller amount of a higher fat dairy product such as yogurt or cheese will supply fewer calories but also   less in the amount of  many nutrients such as protein, calcium and magnesium. Full-fat dairy products, in moderation, can certainly fit into a healthy eating pattern. How much is considered moderation really depends on factors such as total caloric intake, activity patterns and other food choices.

As well, what is the cheese contributing to the meal? For example, adding Parmigiana Reggiano to  a pasta dish or a small amount of a flavourful extra old cheddar combined with a lower fat cheese in a macaroni and cheese casserole doesn’t add up to a lot of fat but it can be the difference between a bland meal and a delicious one.

Not all full-fat cheeses are created equal
When it comes to the expression you are what you eat, it holds true for animals as well.  The nutritional profile of the cheese will  very much depend on what the cow is eating.

Grass-fed cows produce dairy products which are lower in saturated fat and higher in both omega-3 fats and  a fatty acid called conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) which may offer a range of health benefits including some weight control perks. But before you run out and buy CLA supplements, more research is needed. Go for dairy products, instead,  for your CLA.

Then there’s the matter of taste. We’ve likely all sampled a fat-free cheese that could have passed for plastic – both in texture and flavour. But there are tasty cheeses with varying levels of fat that can stand up to scrutiny. In some cases, though, as the fat provides flavour, lower fat products may need to be partnered with some tasty garnishes. For example, having a lower-fat  (not low-fat or fat-free) cheese on a crusty whole grain bread garnished with a mango chutney –Dijon mustard doesn’t feel like deprivation. Neither does a Caprese salad with fresh mozzarella or bocconcini, tomatoes and basil with a fruity extra virgin olive oil drizzled over top.

There was a period of time when cheesemakers were allowed creative and came up  with wonderful tasting lower fat cheeses. Read about how  our government put a stop to that in an upcoming post.

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Categories: Nutrition News, Weight Management, Your Questions Answered

Author:Rosie Schwartz

Rosie Schwartz is a Toronto-based consulting dietitian and writer.

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