Is Whole Milk Better Than Low Fat and Skim Milk?
Written by Becky Bell, MS, RD and Celia Shatzman — Medically reviewed by Jared Meacham, Ph.D., RD, PMP, MBA, CSCS — Updated on February 17, 2022
Milk is one of the most naturally nutritious beverages on the planet, which explains why it’s often a staple in school lunches and a popular drink for people of all ages.
For decades, nutrition guidelines have recommended only low fat dairy products for everyone over 2 years old. However, in recent years, scientists have called this recommendation into question (1Trusted Source).
In fact, recent studies suggest that skim might not always be the best health-promoting choice when it comes to milk.
This article will review how the different types of milk stack up to determine which is the best option.
Different types of dairy milk: Whole, low fat, and skim
There are several types of milk available in the dairy aisle of most grocery stores, which mainly differ in their fat content.
Whole milk is sometimes referred to as “regular milk” because the amount of fat in it has not been altered. Skim and 1% milk are produced by removing fat from whole milk.
Fat content is measured as a percentage of the total liquid by weight. Here’s the fat content of popular milk varieties:
- whole milk: 3.25% milk fat
- low fat milk: 1% milk fat
- skim: less than 0.5% milk fat
This table summarizes the nutrients in 1 cup (237 mL) of several milk varieties (2Trusted Source, 3Trusted Source, 4Trusted Source):Skim milkLow fat milkWhole milkCalories84106152Carbs12 grams13 grams11.5 gramsProtein8.5 grams8.5 grams8 gramsFat0.2 grams2.5 grams8 gramsSaturated fat0.1 grams1.5 grams4.5 gramsOmega-3 fatty acids0 grams0.01 grams0.04 gramsCalcium25% of the DV24% of the DV24% of the DVVitamin D14% of the DV13% of the DV12% of the DVPhosphorus21% of the DV20% of the DV20% of the DV
Since fat contains more calories per serving than any other nutrient, milk with a higher fat content is higher in calories (5Trusted Source).
Though each type of milk contains a similar amount of micronutrients, the amount of vitamin Dcan differ slightly. However, because most milk manufacturers add vitamin D to milk, each variety generally contains a similar amount (6Trusted Source).
Another significant nutritional difference between milk varieties is the amount of omega-3 fatty acids, a type of fat that has been linked to many health benefits, including improved heart and brain health, as well as lowered inflammation. The more fat a cup of milk has in it, the higher its omega-3 content (7Trusted SourceTrusted Source).
Additionally, studies have shown that organic whole milk contains an even higher amount of omega-3s than regular whole milk. However, this distinction is mostly seen in “grass-fed” milk, which is almost always organic anyway. So if you’re looking for higher omega-3s per serving, check to make sure you’re buying grass fed milk (8Trusted Source, 9Trusted Source, 10Trusted Source).
The major difference between the types of dairy milk available is fat content. Whole milk contains more fat and calories than skim milk.
Whole milk: Is it unhealthy?
For years, nutrition guidelines have been instructing people to avoid whole milk, mainly due to its saturated fat content.
Mainstream nutrition recommendations advise limiting saturated fat because it can increase cholesterol levels, which is a risk factor for heart disease (11Trusted Source).
Based on this information, experts made the assumption that saturated fat must increase the risk of heart disease. However, there was no experimental evidence to prove that this was true (12Trusted Source, 13Trusted Source).
In the 1970s, public policy was adopted based on this assumed connection between saturated fat and heart disease. As a result, official guidelines instructed people to reduce their saturated fat intake (12Trusted Source).
A cup (237 mL) of whole milk contains 4.5 grams of saturated fat, which is about 20% of the daily amount recommended by the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. For this reason, the guidelines recommend consuming only low fat or skim milk (4Trusted Source, 13Trusted Source).
In recent years, this recommendation has been called into question. There is emerging experimental data to indicate that eating moderate amounts of saturated fat does not directly cause heart disease (14Trusted Source, 15Trusted Source).
In the past, whole milk was considered unhealthy because of its saturated fat content, but recent research does not fully support this recommendation.
What to know about saturated fat
While those with high cholesterol levels or heart disease may need to defer to their doctor’s recommendations and monitor their intake of saturated fat, it can still be enjoyed as part of a balanced diet for individuals without those two conditions.
In fact, multiple studies suggest that increased saturated fat intake is not directly associated with a higher risk of heart disease, stroke, heart attack, or heart disease-related death (16Trusted Source, 17Trusted Source, 18Trusted Source).
Originally, researchers believed that saturated fat increased cholesterol levels, which in turn increased the risk of heart disease. However, the relationship between saturated fat and cholesterol is much more complicated.
For starters, although saturated fat does increase levels of LDL (bad) cholesterol, it also increases levels of HDL (good) cholesterol, which can actually help protect against heart disease (19Trusted Source, 20Trusted Source).
Additionally, there are different types of LDL, and it’s the very small, dense particles of LDL that have the most damaging effects on the heart and arteries. Though saturated fat can increase cholesterol levels, it actually changes LDL from the small, dense particles to the large, less harmful particles (21Trusted Source, 22Trusted Source, 13Trusted Source).
Furthermore, other research suggests that certain foods high in saturated fat may impact heart health differently. For example, one review showed that cheese and yogurt were actually linked to a lower risk of heart disease, while red meat and butter were tied to a higher risk (23Trusted Source).
For this reason, it’s important to consider the overall nutritional composition of an ingredient rather than focusing solely on the individual nutrients it contains (24Trusted Source).
Even though a lot of new research is questioning the direct connection between saturated fat and heart health, it still can increase cholesterol levels in some individuals. Therefore, those with heart disease or high cholesterol levels may want to consider swapping out foods high in saturated fats for other ingredients instead.
In particular, studies show that replacing saturated-fat foods with whole grains or polyunsaturated fats — a type of fat found in foods like olive oil, nuts, and seeds — could be beneficial for long-term heart health (25Trusted Source, 26Trusted Source).
Though it’s still important to moderate your saturated fat intake if you’re living with health conditions like high cholesterol or heart disease, studies are now showing that moderate saturated fat consumption does not directly increase the risk of heart disease in otherwise healthy individuals. Additionally, certain foods that contain saturated fat may affect heart health differently.
Always talk with your doctor about your specific health issues before incorporating new dietary patterns.
Whole milk and weight management
Many people avoid drinking whole milk because they assume the extra fat and calories will cause them to gain weight. However, many studies have shown that consuming high fat dairy products may actually help support weight management instead.
According to one 2016 study of 18,438 women, increased intake of full fat dairy products was linked to a lower risk of weight gain over an 11-year period. On the other hand, there was no significant association between low fat dairy intake and weight gain (27Trusted Source).
Another study from 2017 found that dairy fat intake was not linked to a higher risk of weight gain, heart disease, or type 2 diabetes (28Trusted Source).
Similarly, one 2020 review of 29 studies concluded that full fat dairy consumption was not associated with weight gain or fat gain in children (29Trusted Source).
The relationship between milk and weight management has been a research topic for several years, and findings have been inconsistent. However, most of these studies either include all types of dairy products or focus on low fat dairy (30Trusted Source, 31Trusted Source, 32Trusted Source).
In studies that look at only high fat dairy products, like whole milk, there is a pretty consistent connection between full fat dairy and lower body weight, suggesting that whole milk can be a great addition to a well-rounded, nutrient-dense diet and may help you maintain a moderate weight.
While more research needs to be done, there is not much evidence that drinking whole milk instead of skim causes weight gain.
Can whole milk lower your risk for chronic disease?
Studies have found that whole milk could be linked to a lower risk of several chronic conditions, including:
- Metabolic syndrome. Multiple studies show that drinking whole milk may be associated with a lower risk of metabolic syndrome, a group of risk factors that can increase the risks of heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes (33Trusted Source, 34Trusted Source, 35Trusted Source).
- Type 2 diabetes. In one large study, people with the highest amount of dairy-derived fatty acids in their bloodstreams had a 44% lower rate of diabetes. However, more research is needed, as some other studies have found that full fat and nonfermented dairy products may be associated with a higher risk (36Trusted Source, 37Trusted Source, 38Trusted Source).
- Infertility. Although more research is needed, some studies suggest that drinking milk may be associated with improved reproductive health and fertility in women (39Trusted Source).
It’s important to note that many other factors, such as physical activity, daily diet, and personal health history all play a role in the development of chronic diseases. Therefore, drinking whole milk is one small part of a much larger equation.
Drinking whole milk as part of a nutritious diet may actually have some health benefits, including a reduced risk of metabolic syndrome. It may also protect against type 2 diabetes and improve reproductive health for women, but more research is needed.
The advantage of choosing skim milk
There are some situations where skim milk may be the best choice for you.
For example, if you’re following a very low calorie diet, choosing skim milk may be a better option as it’s lower in calories but contains about the same amount of protein per cup (237 mL) (2Trusted Source, 4Trusted Source).
Skim milk is also considered a nutrient-dense ingredient, meaning it provides a large dose of vitamins and minerals with very few calories.
In fact, skim milk is one of the richest food sources of calcium, providing around 325 mg per cup. This is even higher than the calcium content of whole milk, which is 306 mg per cup (2Trusted Source, 4Trusted Source).
It can also be a great way to increase your intake of several other important vitamins and minerals, including vitamin D, phosphorus, and potassium (2Trusted Source).
Skim milk provides approximately the same amount of protein and calcium as whole milk but contains fewer calories.
The bottom line
Though many official guidelines have long recommended avoiding whole milk, it can be a great addition to a nutrient-focused diet.
One of the main reasons whole milk was called out was because of its saturated fat content, which was previously directly connected to issues like heart disease.
However, new research questions this direct connection. While individuals who are already living with high cholesterol and heart disease should defer to their doctor’s advice and limit their intake of saturated fat, people without such conditions may be able to consume it in moderate amounts without it impacting their overall health.
Talk with your doctor about your specific health history and what’s the best option for you when it comes to saturated fat intake.
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