Pretty much ever since low-fat dairy has been common, there has been an argument about what is better: Full cream or low-fat?
It is one of the most common questions in the nutrition world.
Most people have a strong opinion.
Often people will either believe that “full cream is better because x” or “low fat is better because y.”
Other people are confused because they feel as though every week a new study comes out proving that one option is better than the other.
In this article though, I am going to take the nuanced approach.
I am going to highlight that for some people full cream makes more sense and for others, low-fat makes more sense.
I will build an argument for each option individually, then piece it together at the end with some recommendations.
Two Quick Caveats
Caveat #1: I am solely writing this for people who choose to consume dairy.
From a nutritional perspective, you can have a great diet with dairy. And you can have a great diet without dairy.
Caveat #2: I will not be talking about taste for most of this article.
Some people much prefer the taste of full cream dairy. Obviously, taste needs to be factored in. I want to write about the nutrition side of things from an unbiased perspective. Then you can factor in taste the taste aspect yourself.
Awareness of Overall Nutritional Principles
One reason why I think this topic is so confusing for a lot of people is that people are looking at the topic in isolation, not through the lens of overall nutrition.
Knowing these nutrition principles is important since it allows us to interpret research better.
I am going to use an example:
There is research showing that regularly consuming nuts reduces the likelihood of gaining weight.
What does this mean to two different people looking at it from different perspectives?
- Person 1 (Looking at it at the individual level): regularly consuming nuts per day helps to prevent weight gain.
- Person 2 (Looking at it from an overall nutrition perspective): A calorie surplus is what leads to weight gain over time. Since regularly consuming nuts reduces the likelihood of weight gain, this likely means that people tend to consume/absorb fewer calories on average when they consume nuts regularly.
This distinction is important.
Person 1 looks at it at the individual study level. They might think that it is the individual strategy that matters.
Person 2 sees the big picture. And because they see the big picture, they can understand that if they eat nuts regularly, but still overconsume calories, they will gain weight. Calories have more influence on what we weigh than the nuts themselves.
Pyramid of Nutrition Priorities
Before reading the rest of this article, I encourage taking a quick look at the below image.
This pyramid lays things out in order of priority. Calories matter. Macronutrients matter. Micronutrients, meal timing/frequency and supplements matter.
Other stuff that is not on this pyramid matters too.
In order of priority though, it lays it out with context. And this is a helpful tool to consider when factoring in nutrition discussion at a broader level.
With that out of the way, I will now go through the arguments for each option.
Argument For Full Cream Dairy
If we solely looked at calories, low-fat dairy would be the easy winner. But there is a lot more to it. We will look at a lot of points individually.
One of the things that confuses a lot of people is that when full cream dairy is compared to low-fat dairy in research there is often minimal difference in weight loss or gain.
One cup of full cream milk has ~157 calories. One cup of skim milk has around 85 calories.
Based on that simplified logic, low-fat dairy should lead to weight loss in comparison.
Why do we not see this often in research?
Put simply, in uncontrolled settings, people who consume full cream dairy on average end up eating similar amounts of total calories to the people who consume low-fat dairy.
In a controlled environment where all food is provided, if this was the only change that was made, it would result in a calorie deficit and lead to weight loss.
We have seen time and time again in metabolic ward studies that a calorie deficit leads to weight loss even when other factors such as insulin are significantly different between groups.
But there are two explanations for why we see findings like the ones we do with dairy in uncontrolled settings like the real world:
- Full cream dairy is more satiating than low-fat dairy when the same amount is used. This can decrease calorie intake elsewhere throughout the day.
- The human body is smart. It recognises that more calories have been consumed and decreases appetite due to this.
Some people notice this effect more than others too.
Part of why this argument matters is because it partly breaks down one of the strongest arguments for low-fat dairy, which is that by being fewer calories it should make weight management easier.
Lack of Impact on Cholesterol and Heart Health
An argument against full cream dairy for a long time is that it is high in saturated fat.
This theoretically should lead to an increase in cholesterol. It should also theoretically contribute to a higher risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD).
The research on the topic has not shown this though.
It seems to have a relatively neutral effect.
Fermented dairy such as yoghurt is actually linked with lower rates of CVD concerns, even when full-cream products are used.
Of course, this is a complex topic.
People can criticise this by saying “but what is the dairy replacing in these studies?”
It is sometimes pointed out that it is possible to have a healthier diet than the subjects in these studies. And that if you got a group of people with incredible diets and then added full-cream dairy, made their risk of CVD increases comparatively.
That is a fair criticism. I am not arguing against that.
I am just highlighting that the impact on CVD risk is a lot lower than you would expect if you were just basing it on the belief that because full-cream dairy contains saturated fat, it should increase the risk a lot.
Absorption of Fat-Soluble Vitamins
Fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E and K) require fat to be absorbed.
Based on this logic, you could conclude that the fat content of full cream dairy will help the absorption of these nutrients.
This leads to a few questions though:
- Do we need the fat to be in that meal? Or do we just need to consume enough fat for the day?
- How much fat do we need?
There is surprisingly little research quantifying this information.
Even on other evidence-based websites, I see them providing references for most statements, and then when this topic comes up, they often just do not provide a reference.
Based on the evidence I am aware of, except for VERY low-fat diets, this issue is not overly common. Even with relatively low fat intakes, absorption of vitamins and minerals seems fine still. Otherwise, we would see a lot of people on relatively low-fat diets running into deficiencies far more frequently than we do.
A particularly common claim is that the fat content helps vitamin D absorption from dairy. But dairy does not naturally contain vitamin D. So even if this claim was accurate, it would only be relevant for fortified products.
At the other end of the spectrum, there is a study indicating that full cream dairy has more vitamin K than low fat dairy. This study came out in 2017 and to the best of my knowledge, there is no other research on the topic.
Benefits of Fat
There are benefits of dietary fat.
Our goal is not to consume minimal fat.
Satiety is one of these benefits. Absorption of nutrients might become an issue if fat intake is excessively low. It can also influence hormones.
We do not necessarily need to have an overly high fat intake to reap the benefits of dietary fat. But if we try to limit fat everywhere in our diet, it can certainly have downsides.
It is Less Processed
Full cream dairy is less processed than low-fat dairy. It is in its more natural form.
Technically I think this argument is relatively weak in isolation.
A concept called the “naturalistic fallacy” highlights that just because something is more “natural” does not mean it is better. It is a mistake to automatically assume that because something is less processed, it is guaranteed to be better.
On an individual level, I would look at all the other arguments first.
While I do not think it makes much sense in isolation, as an across-the-board type of approach to nutrition, it makes a lot of sense to focus on minimally processed foods.
If you just viewed this as a simple part of that across-the-board type of approach, then I can see that perspective.
As mentioned, we have research showing that on average, there is no difference in weight between groups who consume full cream dairy instead of low-fat.
That research typically involves people who want to lose weight or maintain weight.
What if somebody wanted to gain weight?
Choosing full cream dairy can be an easy way to increase calories without increasing food volume. This can make it easier to consume more calories, which can help fuel performance and muscle growth in those who struggle to consume enough calories.
Argument for Low-Fat Dairy
Now that we have gone through the arguments for full cream dairy, we will look at the other perspective.
A Quick Note on the Sugar Content
Have you ever heard a variation of “they just take out the fat and then replace it with sugar” in reference to low-fat products?
I hear it a lot.
I just wanted to unpack this before going into the arguments for low-fat dairy.
In some cases, this logic is right, in other cases it is wrong.
Let us start with milk. Theoretically, based on this logic, skim milk should contain a lot more sugar than full cream milk.
Does it though? We can easily answer this by checking the labels. Look at the picture below.
The sugar content is pretty much the same. It is 1g different.
Technically it is not a lie to say, “the sugar content is higher.” But that change is insignificant in comparison to the change in calories and fat.
Explaining why the sugar content is slightly different:
- All they do to change full-cream milk to skim milk is remove the fat.
- Let’s say you have the equivalent of 2 cups (250ml each) of full cream milk.
- If you took the fat out of one of those cups to make it skim milk, is it still 250ml? No, it is now a little bit less than that.
- To make the 250ml vs 250ml comparison, you now would need to pour a bit more skim milk into that cup to top it back up.
- This is why not only is the sugar content a tiny bit higher, so are the protein and calcium content. Almost everything apart from the fat content is slightly higher because of this.
That was milk. But what about other dairy products?
It is on a case-by-case basis. Sometimes sugar is added, and sometimes it is not.
Using yoghurt as an example: There are products that are low fat and high sugar. But there are also ones that are low fat and have no added sugar.
You can find this easily by reading a label to see the nutritional information panel. The ingredients list also tells us whether sugar has been added.
While this argument has merit in some cases, we also have a lot of access to dairy products that are low fat and have no added sugar.
Starting with the obvious argument for low-fat dairy: It is lower in calories.
In uncontrolled research done in real-world settings, this factor does not seem to matter much.
But what if you are somebody who has a specific plan for your diet? What if you track calories? Or what if you have a routine where you eat similar things each day?
If you reduced calories by switching to low-fat dairy and then did not make up for those calories elsewhere, it would make a difference.
Looking at it from an overall macronutrient perspective the strongest argument from my perspective.
Low-fat dairy often fits into appropriate macronutrient targets for people better.
Obviously, this depends on the overall amount consumed, since this does not matter if only a small amount was consumed.
Using an example:
Hypothetical 80kg person exercises 3-4x per week and wants a moderate calorie deficit. They are aiming for 1900 calories per day. They want to optimise muscle retention throughout the process, so need to keep protein high.
A good protein target to optimise muscle retention could be 1.6g/kg/day (or higher in some cases). This would be 128g of protein.
Protein has 4 calories per gram, so this is 512 calories.
They now have 1388 calories left to split between carbohydrates (4kcal/g) and fat (9kcal/g) however they like.
I would personally choose targets like 130g protein, 220g carbs and 55g fat. This comes out as around 1900 calories.
This meets the protein target while providing a good amount of fat for hormonal and other reasons. It leaves as much room as possible for carbohydrates for optimising training.
If you would prefer higher fat, I can also talk through that after.
For now, see the image below.
- One cup of full cream milk is 6% of that protein target and 15% of that fat target.
- Two cups would be 12% of the protein target and 30% of the fat target.
- Three cups would be 18% of the protein target and 45% of the fat target.
You can see that full cream dairy fills up a larger percentage of the fat target than the protein target.
Meanwhile, skim barely fills up the fat target at all.
Protein is typically the hardest macronutrient target for most people to reach, without exceeding their calorie budget. It is a lot easier to add fat to a diet if needed than to add more protein.
If having larger amounts, using lower fat dairy gives more flexibility and makes it easier to achieve a relatively high protein intake.
From an overall nutrition perspective, consuming an appropriate calorie and macronutrient amount for your goals outweighs the little details.
Some people reading this might prefer a lower carbohydrate and higher fat approach. This concept matters less if you are aiming for a higher fat intake. Particularly if you are talking about other dairy options such as cheese or cream.
For a low-carb approach, it would not fully make sense for the milk example that I just used though. Regardless of which milk you chose, it would take up a larger percentage of your carbohydrate budget than your protein budget. It would cause the same problem in a different way.
Can We Replace Those Fats in Other/Better Ways?
If the fat in dairy is mostly neutral from a health perspective, are there better options?
Could you switch full-cream dairy to low-fat dairy, then add that same quantity of dietary fat elsewhere?
We have a wealth of evidence that dietary approaches such as Mediterranean style diets come alongside a lot of benefits.
Diets that are rich in extra virgin olive oil, nuts, salmon and avocado often lead to a lot of positive health outcomes.
So even looking at it from the perspective of the benefits of dietary fat, there are many options that are available to achieve those outcomes. Potentially the other options might even lead to better outcomes.
It is going to seem weird that I am using the same argument for low-fat dairy as I used for full cream. But stick with me here. I am going to approach this differently.
One cup of full cream milk (~157 calories) likely satiates somebody more than one cup of skim milk (~85 calories).
That’s easy to understand.
What would happen if you matched the calories?
Two full cups of skim milk are only slightly more calories (170 calories) than one cup of full cream milk.
This concept would also apply to yoghurt, cheese and other dairy products.
Potentially the larger volume would be more filling if calories are the same.
This concept ties in with approach of volume eating. It is based on the idea that eating more total food volume for the same number of calories leads to you feeling fuller.
Our appetite is partly based on how many calories we consume, and partly based on how much food we consume.
Having a lower calorie option but consuming more of it might make it easier to feel a bit fuller and consume fewer total calories.
This could also vary between people and how their levels of satiety respond to dietary fat intake too though.
Practical Summary: What Should You Do?
This was a very roundabout way of saying: “it depends.”
Even though it seems like the research constantly goes back and forth, when you look at the entire body of literature, it becomes clearer.
The research in uncontrolled environments that measure weight and health outcomes indicates a simple answer:
It does not matter which one you choose. At a population level, they both seem to lead to similar outcomes.
But at an individual level, it is different.
Whether or not you actively think about it, there is an appropriate number of calories and macros for your goals. Some people have broader ranges, others have more narrow ranges.
For some people, it is easier to fit either option into those ranges.
People who consume less dairy do not really need to think about it.
People who consume more dairy might:
- Choose low-fat since it might fit their overall nutritional targets more easily.
- Choose full cream but do it in a way that fits into their overall nutritional targets.
- Not focus on their nutritional targets. These ranges can often be so broad that you can get good results without thinking about them much.
And then there is the taste perspective. One of the good things about this article is that you can see that under almost all circumstances, either option can fit well.
Even in circumstances where it seems harder to fit full cream dairy in, you can just adjust other aspects of your diet.
This means that if you prefer the taste or texture of one, you can choose that without any real nutritional downside.