As a dietitian, I keep hearing clients tell me that they’ve heard full-fat milk is better for them because non-fat milk is loaded with sugar.
First off, unflavoured milk (non-fat, 1%, 2% and whole) has 12 grams of naturally occurring sugar per cup. No more. No less. And, yes, “naturally occurring” sugar. This sugar is called “lactose;” it’s not added sugar, which is what the government recommends you limit.
Only the level of fat in milk changes the total calories. One cup of non-fat milk has about 90 calories and 0 grams of fat. A cup of whole milk has about 145 calories and 8 grams of fat.
All other essential nutrients—calcium, potassium, vitamin D and the rest—are the same.
But what about saturated fat?
Yes, dairy fat is primarily saturated, but a May 2015 study in Advances in Nutrition examined the recent data on saturated fat and cardiovascular health. While the “optimal mix” of macronutrients wasn’t defined, the authors noted the importance of what nutrients replace saturated fat rather than blindly recommending a blanket reduction.
Further, it’s important to remember that the 2015 Dietary Guidelines report eliminates the concern over total fat in the diet.
Whole Fat or Fat Free Milk: Which Is Healthier?
It’s not as simple as saying everyone who eats dairy should switch immediately to whole fat dairy products. Because doing so does means total calories go up.
If I have an overweight or obese client who regularly drinks whole milk, I’d suggest switching to a lower fat option. Saving those calories would be worthwhile.
On the flip side, if I have someone who isn’t looking for fat loss but may be more interested in performance or what I say “levelling up” their nutrition game, I’m fine with whole dairy.
This means it’s important to look at the big picture—nutrition isn’t black or white, one size fits all. The client matters and so do their goals and needs.
Led Zeppelin famously sang “The Song Remains the Same.” I, much less famously, say the diet message remains the same: Consider the entire diet and not a single ingredient or food.