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 (
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.
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
|Skim milk||Low fat milk||Whole milk|
|Carbs||12 grams||13 grams||11.5 grams|
|Protein||8.5 grams||8.5 grams||8 grams|
|Fat||0.2 grams||2.5 grams||8 grams|
|Saturated fat||0.1 grams||1.5 grams||4.5 grams|
|Omega-3 fatty acids||0 grams||0.01 grams||0.04 grams|
|Calcium||25% of the DV||24% of the DV||24% of the DV|
|Vitamin D||14% of the DV||13% of the DV||12% of the DV|
|Phosphorus||21% of the DV||20% of the DV||20% of the DV|
Since fat contains more calories per serving than any other nutrient, milk with a higher fat content is higher in calories (
Though each type of milk contains a similar amount of micronutrients, the amount of vitamin D can differ slightly. However, because most milk manufacturers add vitamin D to milk, each variety generally contains a similar amount (
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 (
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 (
The major difference between the types of dairy milk available is fat content. Whole milk contains more fat and calories than skim milk.
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 (
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 (
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 (
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 (
In the past, whole milk was considered unhealthy because of its saturated fat content, but recent research does not fully support this recommendation.
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 (
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.
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 (
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 (
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 (
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 (
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.
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 (
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 (
Similarly, one 2020 review of 29 studies concluded that full fat dairy consumption was not associated with weight gain or fat gain in children (
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 (
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.
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 (
33, 34, 35).
- 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 (
36, 37, 38).
- Infertility. Although more research is needed, some studies suggest that drinking milk may be associated with improved reproductive health and fertility in women (
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.
There are some situations where skim milk may be the best choice for you.
Skim milk is also considered a nutrient-dense ingredient, meaning it provides a large dose of vitamins and minerals with very few calories.
It can also be a great way to increase your intake of several other important vitamins and minerals, including vitamin D, phosphorus, and potassium (
Skim milk provides approximately the same amount of protein and calcium as whole milk but contains fewer calories.
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.
Just one thing
Try this today: An easy way to enjoy whole milk is by adding it to smoothies. Try blending whole milk with your favorite fruits, veggies, and leafy greens for a delicious and nutritious snack.