Whole Milk vs. Skim: Which Is Better?

Whole Milk vs. Skim: Which Is Better?For those of us that include dairy in our diets, the question of whether to choose full-fat dairy products over reduced-fat versions can be confusing. Despite decades spent broadcasting the harms of dairy fat, the whole milk vs. skim debate is raging more strongly than ever. Results from research conducted during the past couple of years appear to exonerate full-fat dairy products like whole milk. Eating these dairy foods not only doesn’t seem to increase the risk of diseases like diabetes, obesity, and cardiovascular disease, it may even be protective.

High-fat cream fights diabetes

A study recently presented at the annual meeting of the European Association for the Study of Diabetes found that people who eat more than eight daily portions of high-fat dairy products have a 23% lower risk of developing type 2 diabetes than those who eat one portion or less per day.[1] 

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Of all the specific full-fat dairy products examined, the two that had the greatest protective effect were high-fat cream and high-fat fermented milk products (yogurt/kefir). People who ate at least 30 mL of cream per day were 15% less likely to develop type 2 diabetes. High-fat fermented-dairy consumption at 180 mL/day reduced the risk of developing diabetes by 20% compared to those who never ate fermented dairy. The researchers controlled for age, sex, total energy intake, body mass index (BMI), leisure-time physical activity, smoking, and alcohol consumption.

Lower-fat dairy consumption had a neutral effect after the researchers made adjustments. Meat, meanwhile, increased diabetes risk regardless of fat content. Eating large amounts of high-fat meat and meat products increased diabetes risk the most, by 25%.

Whole milk vs. skim milk and obesity

Full-fat dairy also appears to help protect against obesity, increased waist size, metabolic syndrome, and cardiovascular disease. Total dairy intake is associated with a significantly decreased likelihood of obesity, and the consumption of whole milk and other full-fat dairy products is the most protective.[2] People in the highest tertile of full-fat dairy intakes have a 45% lower likelihood of being obese and a 35% decreased chance of having abdominal obesity compared with those in the lowest intake group.[2]

People who eat the most full-fat dairy products also have a 59% lower risk of metabolic syndrome, which is a group of risk factors for heart  disease and diabetes that includes central obesity (high waist circumference), high triglycerides, low HDL cholesterol, high blood sugar, and high blood pressure.[3] .

Dairy research results not conclusive

Other recent studies have found that low-fat and fermented dairy products appear to be more beneficial (or no worse) for decreasing risk of diabetes, obesity, and cardiovascular disease than full-fat, non-fermented products.[4,5] But even these studies generally didn’t find any increased risk with whole-fat dairy—just a neutral effect.

As you can see, while the verdict on the whole milk vs. skim debate has yet to be definitively solved, whole milk does not seem to the danger that we once thought. Questions remain about which types of dairy are the most healthful and about how the unique types of fats in dairy might be acting to benefit health. Other researchers are investigating whether the health benefits of organic dairy or dairy from pasture-raised animals differ from conventionally fed cows or whether raw, unpasteurized dairy is more beneficial than pasteurized.[6] In general, though, dairy appears to be a neutral or even protective food for those who do not have any allergies or intolerances to any of its components.

Share your experiences

Do you include dairy in your diet? Do you prefer full or reduced fat? Organic? Grass-fed? Share you thoughts in the comments section below.


[1] EASD 2014; Abstract 62.

[2] Nutr Res. 2014 Jul 30. pii: S0271-5317(14)00121-3.

[3]  Nutr Metab Cardiovasc Dis. 2013 Sep;23(9):816-21.

[4] Am J Clin Nutr. 2013 Oct;98(4):1066-83.

[5] Am J Clin Nutr. 2011 Jan;93(1):158-71.

[6] Lipids Health Dis. 2013; 12: 99.

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Comments
  • Loretta J.

    Another very helpful article. Does drinking whole milk, though, add weight that is unhealthy?

  • Dr. Kathleen, I think the most important sentence in your excellent blog post is at the very end where it says “dairy appears to be a neutral or even protective food for those who do not have any allergies or intolerances to any of its components.” I think many people who drink or eat dairy do have some intolerance and some resulting symptoms but never associate it with the dairy. So dairy products can be beneficial, but only if you are absolutely sure you have no allergies.

  • cynthia M.

    Who would have thought? Now I have more written proof that my husband’s “low-fat” food choices are part of the reason his wt won’t come down. Thank’s Kathleen!

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