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Which Milk Is Best For You?

Which Is Best: Nonfat, Low-Fat, or Full-Fat Milk? An Expert Answers

There's a lot of confusing information out there about whether fat in dairy products is good for you. Dietitian Julie Upton, MS, RD, of Appetite For Health, is here to shed light on what you should be consuming for optimal health.

If recent news reports have you reaching for the ultrarich, cream-on-the top yogurts and whole milk, you've likely heard or seen stories that suggest that skim products are less healthy and the saturated fats in full-fat dairy products won't clog your arteries or add inches to your waistline.

Unfortunately, a lot of the good news about high-fat dairy foods is based on a lot of shaky science that gets a lot of media attention but doesn't hold up to scientific scrutiny. Here's the bottom line on how to choose healthier dairy products.

Skim milk or any other low-fat dairy product (ie, plain yogurt or cheese) is not higher in sugar compared to their full-fat counterparts nor are they somehow "slimmed" of nutrients. All types of cow's milk — nonfat, 1 percent, 2 percent, or whole — have the same grams of carbohydrates and protein but vary in their total fat, saturated fat, and calorie counts. Since satiety is based on protein content (not fat or calories) the notion that whole milk dairy is more filling makes little sense.

The simple carbohydrates present in dairy foods is lactose, which is not linked to obesity, type 2 diabetes, and other adverse health affects like added sugars like sucrose, dextrose, maltodextrins, and other added sugars commonly used in processed foods. Unflavored cow's milk and cheese has no added sugars, but the vast majority of yogurt sold in supermarkets has a lot of added sugars, so it's important to choose plain yogurt to limit added sugars.

If you're watching your waistline, calories count, so choose skim or low-fat dairy products, which are significantly lower in calories but not in protein or essential vitamins or minerals. If you like the taste of whole milk dairy foods, enjoy them in moderation, so you don't exceed your daily saturated fat limit of no more than seven to 10 percent of your total calories or about 20 grams per day for most women.

It takes about 10 pounds of milk to make a pound of cheese, so ounce per ounce, regular cheese has more calories, fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol than full fat milk. Due to its popularity and our love of pizza, cheese is the number one source of saturated fat in the US diet, so it's best to opt for reduced fat choices. And saturated fat is still considered a harmful nutrient that raises one's risk for heart disease.

An ounce of most full-fat hard cheeses has about 100 to 115 calories, seven grams of protein, seven to nine grams of total fat and five to six grams of saturated fat. Reduced fat is made with lower fat milk and generally has at least 25 to 75 percent less fat and saturated fat than regular cheese and about half as many calories. Nutritionally, the protein and vitamins and minerals are the same, whether it's regular or reduced fat cheese. (I skip nonfat cheese, as it doesn't perform well when cooking and lacks the texture of higher-fat cheese.)

While yogurt has a health halo, if it's flavored, it probably has a lot of added sugar. For example, a cup of plain yogurt has about seven grams of natural milk sugars but a cup of fruit-on-the-bottom yogurt has as much as 32 grams of sugar or eight teaspoons! A whole milk yogurt will have up to 200 calories and seven to 10 grams of fat per serving; two percent will have 120 to 150 calories, and fat free will have about 100 calories and no fat per serving. If you're looking to slim down, fat free yogurt provides the best calorie bargain and since plain Greek nonfat yogurt is richer and creamier than traditional yogurt, it won't taste like it's fat-free.

Milk Type Calories Protein Fat Saturated Fat Cholesterol (mg)
Skim 90 8.75 0.6 0.4 5
Low-fat 1% 105 8.5 2.4 1.5 10
Low-fat 2% 140 9.6 4.8 3.0 20
Whole 150 7.7 7.9 4.5 24
Values based on an eight-ounce serving
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