Skim Milk Is Healthier Than Whole Milk, Right? Maybe Not

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The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and the American Heart Association recommend that children drink skim or low-fat milk after age 2. But that may not help them to avoid obesity.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends that everyone older than age 9 consume three cups of dairy, which includes milk, cheese and yogurt, a day. Because whole milk contains a considerable number of calories from fat, however, nutritionists have advised people to pick up skim, 1%-fat or 2%-fat versions instead, with the idea that they provide the same calcium and vitamin D for the bones, but without the weight gain that can increase risk of heart disease and diabetes.

“It is one of the most long-standing and consistent nutritional recommendations in the United States, going back 50 years essentially,” says Dr. David Ludwig, director of the New Balance Foundation Obesity Prevention Center at Boston Children’s Hospital.

(MORE: Skim Milk May Not Lower Obesity Risk Among Children)

But is it based on solid scientific evidence? In an editorial in the journal JAMA Pediatrics, Ludwig and nutrition expert Dr. Walter Willett, chair of the department of nutrition and epidemiology at Harvard School of Public Health, argue that there is actually little data to support the idea that skim and low-fat milk lead to better health outcomes than whole milk. Here are a few of their reasons.

1. Low-fat foods do not lower calorie consumption: Low-fat versions are supposed to reduce the amount of calories that people eat, and in an absolute sense, they do. A cup of low-fat milk contains fewer calories than a cup of whole milk. But Ludwig and Willett note that there isn’t much evidence to support the idea that drinking lower-calorie beverages in general leads to lower-calorie intake. Reduced-fat foods and drinks may not be as filling, so consumers may end up compensating for the lack of calories and eating or drinking more. In a study published in the Archives of Disease in Childhood in March, scientists found that kids who drank lower-fat milks were actually more likely to be overweight later on.

“Our original hypothesis was that children who drank high-fat milk, either whole milk or 2% would be heavier because they were consuming more saturated-fat calories. We were really surprised when we looked at the data and it was very clear that within every ethnicity and every socioeconomic strata, that it was actually the opposite, that children who drank skim milk and 1% were heavier than those who drank 2% and whole,” study author Dr. Mark Daniel DeBoer, an associate professor of pediatric endocrinology at the University of Virginia School of Medicine and the chair-elect for the AAP Committee on Nutrition, told TIME in March.

Ludwig’s other research on food addictions support the theory that increased levels of certain foods with a high-glycemic index, such as bagels, white rice and instant oatmeal, can increase hunger and contribute to weight gain, but drinking whole milk was not associated with packing on the pounds.

2. Low-fat milk increases levels of triglyceride fats: Whole milk’s high saturated-fat content has been linked to higher cholesterol. But low-fat milk may lead drinkers to consume more high-glycemic-index foods, which can increase the level of triglycerides that can amplify the effect of heart-disease risk factors such as high cholesterol and hypertension.

3. The rise of sugar-sweetened flavored milk: Some schools and health experts condone flavored milk as a way to get kids to drink it — and the kids do. But while these versions may have 3 g less saturated fat, they also contain about 13 g more sugar than whole milk per cup.

(MORE: Skim-Milk Drinkers Rejoice: You May Have a Lower Stroke Risk)

“We are not arguing milk should be abandoned,” says Ludwig. “For kids who are consuming diets that are high in calories and low in nutrients, milk can provide lots of needed nutrients — like calcium.” What he and Willett are addressing is the assumption, driven by seemingly sound logic, that low-fat versions of milk are healthier than whole milk. “Somehow this low-fat milk has become so intrenched in the nutritional psyche, it persists despite the absence of evidence,” he says. “To the contrary, the evidence that now exists suggests an adverse effect of reduced-fat milk.”

There are also some hints that the benefits of milk for bone may also be, well, exaggerated. In July 2012, a study published in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine followed a group of 6,712 girls over seven years to assess who was likely to develop a stress fracture. They found that neither calcium nor dairy intake was associated with a lower risk of stress fractures. Similarly, a 2003 Harvard Nurses’ Health Study that followed over 72,000 postmenopausal women for 18 years found that milk did not seem to lower risk of hip fractures.

(MORE: Childhood Obesity Rates Drop in Some Cities: What Are They Doing Right?)

Ludwig and Willett aren’t out to tank the dairy industry, but are simply hoping to draw attention to the need to reconsider milk recommendations — this time based on the scientific evidence. They say the data supports a recommendation for drinking up to three cups a day, but doesn’t support the advice that it has to be low-fat or skim milk.

34 comments
laserguidedbrick
laserguidedbrick

I like how people always say Whole milk has 'a lot' of fat but skim milk only has 1- 2% ... Guess what "a lot" actually equates to? only 4% fat and in some countries as little as 1% - Funny how alleged dietary experts leave little facts like that out.

Most dieticians and so called fitness experts these days wouldn't know their arse from their elbow. In common with their holistic counterparts they like to regurgitate popular rather than scientific facts, often omitting certain truths like this one in order to perpetuate the façade of being an authority on the subject of health and fitness...

StillHighhh
StillHighhh

is this 2005? glycemic-index? you lost all your credibility with that one

lumberjackie
lumberjackie

I'm a student dietician. Milk is best known for being packed with vitamin A & D. Vitamins A, D, E, and K are fat soluble. That means your body can not use them properly without a little fat.  Whole milk has a LOT of fat. 2% and 1% are good option because they have enough for you to be able to use the vitamins and don't have quite as many calories, assuming that is a concern for you. 

gullyfourmyle
gullyfourmyle

The problem with milk has nothing to do with fat. Fat is where energy comes from. You either do enough exercise to burn it off or you don't. If you don't you get fat. Simple mathematical equation supported photographically from the beginning of the 20th century. The problem with dairy products, not just milk is the protein casein. This protein is a powerful adhesive that is used to formulate industrial strength glues. Inside the human body, it adheres to whatever it touches. If you consume enough of it, it slimes up the inside of the colon. At that point it begins to putrify. Other food particles stick to it and before you know it, you're constipated and colonic putrification becomes a part of who you are.. Keep that up and you have chronic constipation. From there it's only a matter of time before degenerative disease becomes part of your future. Cancer, heart disease, diabetes, you name it. Dairy has no business being in your body. Almond milk is far, far better. There is nothing about milk that can't be gotten from safer food sources and Vitamin D can be taken as a supplement.

Milk consumption is directly implicated in ear infections in children. 80% of American children have three or more ear infections by the time they are eight years old. The 20% who don't get ear infections or have fewer than 3 by eight years old consume little or no milk. Doctors  have known this since 1938. That's when it started showing up in medical school text books. It shows you how unethical the Ear, Nose and Throat doctors are.

cat_plus_plus
cat_plus_plus

There is a huge self selection of people predisposed to obesity to try low fat foods, or to fail in their diets by getting calories elsewhere. Do a decent size double blind study and then we will talk. My guess is that the answer is different if one doesn't have ready access to bagels and such to eat between meals.

rharris50
rharris50

I read the article expecting the promised insights into the ways in which low fat milk can actually worsen weight problems.  I was surprised to discover that every conclusion that low fat milk causes weight gain , increases triglycerides or simply does not lower calorie consumption actually referred to problems that result if the low fat milk drinker chooses to consume larger quantities of high-glycemic foods such as bagels and white rice.  Even more bizarre is the reference to flavored milks packed with sugar.  What on earth does that have to do with an attempt to reduce unnecessary and unhealthful milk fat?  So none of those conclusions is true; low fat milk does not cause ANY of the alleged negative effects.  Increasing consumption of bagels, white rice and other such foods is entirely the cause.  My children have drunk low fat milk since age 1 and they are extremely unlikely to experience any of those negative effects, because not only is the milk more healthful, but we monitor the entire diet, not just their milk.  It's a sad commentary on American life if the only way to reduce consumption of sugar, and low-fiber carbs like white rice is to stuff the kids with high amounts of milk fat.  Good grief, does that mean we would do even better if we fed them 1/2 stick of butter at every meal, simply because it fills them up more than if they did not have it?

HF75
HF75

Why would you want to drink milk from another mammal in the first place!? The idea of sucking cows'tities makes me feel nauseous. Then when you had how they're fed, etc, I wouldn't want to touch those pristine bottles.

Milk has a very high insulin effect  and contains naturally sugar (lactose), so of course if one combines it with the wrong food (which one always does), consequences are pretty tragic...just look at the kids in the US...

There are so many ways to get calcium & vitamin D without going dairy or soy...but then skipping dairy would also mean saying good bye to so much junk food out there that makes the population sick and that wouldn't be right, right?

jt4702
jt4702

Why not address the real issue here? It teems to me that most people have the misconception that because they are consuming a fat free and lower calorie product (be it skim milk or other products) they can gorge out on other things. I've encountered so many people who say "well, it's low-fat or it's healthier so I can have more and not have to pay for it later".

CherylMarinko
CherylMarinko

I am probably the only member of my family that still drinks whole milk. And I am the slimmest. The rest of them are gulping diet drinks and skim milk and following diets...and they are either diabetic or borderline diabetic. My blood sugar is fine.

manapp99
manapp99

A point to be taken from the article is that supposed "settled science" is not so settled after all. Beware when arguments are put forth based on settled science.   

SwiftrightRight
SwiftrightRight

One of your main points is blaming skim milk for sugar intake because people mix it with sugary flavored products like chocolate and strawberries gunk?? So let me get this straight, because people who drink skim milk may have other unhealthy habits there's no point in drinking skim milk?!? Gee are we going to blame whole grains because people process it into dust, mix it full of lard and sugar and call it a snack cake?

Lets all repeat this together: Skim milk is part of a healthy and balanced diet. not a healthy and balanced diet onto itself


sonik555
sonik555

What even scarier is that associations such as American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and the American Heart Association actually recommend this stuff. These are the people that "suppose to know" whats good for you.

vgupta123
vgupta123

Use nature's foods in their natural form as much as possible. Don't mess with them. It's that simple. Even milk homogenization is not good for health.

formerlyjames
formerlyjames

Few people know, anymore, that what sells as milk now is a long way from the cow and only faintly resembles the product people consumed in the past.   They wouldn't know what to think of the cream separation in natural milk.  Then there's the raw milk controversy, which again, most people are completely unaware.

pleary
pleary

Since the vitamins  in milk are fat soluble, skim or non-fat  products lack the means to get vitamins past the intestinal wall. The toilet bowl gets the benefit of all that enhanced vitamins in "near" milk. Processors are the only ones to prosper since they earn more from the constituents stripped from milk to make it non-fat, Nature made milk an almost perfect food. Man's hubris only detracts.

linuxfreakus
linuxfreakus

@gullyfourmyle Almond milk, soy milk and other such products are not clearly better, they are unnatural processed foods which contain all sorts of added crap to make it seem like "milk".  Carrageenan for example appears to be linked to intestinal damage and cancer.

SaraBLawrence
SaraBLawrence

@HF75  Milk is a necessity in today's diet for a large percentage of the population due to their lack of other Vitamin D sources.  Studies have shown that those that had an intolerance to dairy that avoided it also were 70% more likely to have severe bone and tooth decay.  One reason for the lack of Vitamin D in people now is the lack of sun exposure.  Cod and fish liver oils are the best way to get your dose of Vitamin D but --- ick!  Especially with children. 

lumberjackie
lumberjackie

@CherylMarinko That's because adding fat to anything lowers the glycemic index. Your blood sugar is more stable when you have whole milk vs. fat free because your body is releasing the energy slowly vs. spiking your blood glucose levels @CherylMarinko you know what you're doing- way to go!

rharris50
rharris50

@CherylMarinko We already know that "gulping diet drinks" is terrible for your health, and they actually cause weight gain for reasons that we do not understand fully (but not just because they make people eat more fattening foods)Your family members must not be following very good diets, if they are threatened with diabetes and overweight.  Nobody in my extended family drinks even 2% milk, much less whole milk, and they are all slim.  I guess anecdotal evidence is tricky.

vgupta123
vgupta123

@manapp99There is very little that is really "settled" in the field of food and nutrition. Just look at the US food pyramid. It has changed so many times in the last 25 years, yet many experts (e.g., Harvard School of Public Health) still don't agree with it.  

The only thing that is settled is this: Natural foods are better for health; processed foods are better for the economy.  

vgupta123
vgupta123

@SwiftrightRight The point is not that skim milk is unhealthy (in an absolute sense). The point is that it is NOT MORE healthy than whole milk as has been claimed for 50 years. Moreover, in practice, because people tend to make up the lower calories (in skim vs. whole) through other less-healthy food sources, there is no point in choosing skim milk over whole milk. 

If people could simply learn to eat fewer calories, there would be no problem of obesity. But they don't. They inevitably make up the calories elsewhere. Therefore, processing natural foods to somehow reduce their intrinsic calories may be a pointless exercise (except, perhaps, to create jobs in the food industry).   

sonik555
sonik555

@SwiftrightRightWhy dont you look into how skim milk is being produced, its true nutritional value, fat soluble vitamins content, and presence  alot of other ingredients that FDA doesn't even require companies to disclose. 

When I went to school, I did not see soda until I was 15, and everyone drank regular milk. We had one overweight child per class and perhaps one or two obese kids per school. 



sonik555
sonik555

@SwiftrightRight  Why dont you look into how skim milk is being produced, its true nutritional value, fat soluble vitamins content, and presence  alot of other ingredients that FDA doesn't even require companies to disclose. 

When I went to school, I did not see soda until I was 15, and everyone drank regular milk. We had one overweight child per class and perhaps one or two obese kids per school. 


SwiftrightRight
SwiftrightRight

@sonik555Not really its called research and adjusting dietary recommendations to fit modern diets. 

100 years ago dieticians recommended the consumption of lard fortified with vit D. At the time many if not most people ate meat once or twice a week and barely had enough caloric intake to maintain life so 40-50 grams of lard was no big deal. Ricketts however was rampant and eliminating it was vital to national health.

When you stop conducting research and cease trying to improve your knowledge you are no longing practicing science your preaching dogma.


CherylMarinko
CherylMarinko

@formerlyjames I grew up on a dairy farm, and my Grandfather was a dairy farmer. They pasteurized the milk of course, but my Grandpa always grabbed a little of the unpasteurized for our personal consumption each day. My Grandmother would leave some of it as whole milk, and she would skim the cream off of the rest. One of my best memories are of my Grandmother making me oatmeal and adding cream to it. She would use the skimmed milk to make her own cottage cheese!

rharris50
rharris50

@pleary That's assuming you do not get the fact from another source--one that is better for your body than the saturated fats in milk.  Because I switched my children to low fat milk  at an early age, I ensured that the got their necessary fat intake from more healthful alternative sources, such as olive oil or oils rich in Omega3.  If eaten at the same time that they consume the low fat (or even skim) milk, the consumer gets plenty of fat to provide all of the important functions, without joining in the epidemic of excessive consumption of saturated fats that have contributed to both heart disease and and record high obesity.

rharris50
rharris50

@vgupta123 @SwiftrightRight The problem is, there is nothing in the article to support your friendly interpretation that skim milk is not more healthful than whole.  Of course there is a point in choosing skim milk over whole milk:  it's not just the calories, it's also the saturated fat that is harmful.  Since most Americans consume far too much saturated fat for their health, it's clearly better to drink skim milk, rather than whole.  It's ridiculous to argue that skim milk is not better for you, when you really mean that if you replace it with someone more harmful, you might be even worse off.  That makes no sense.  If f r some crazy reason, people who quit drinking whole milk started smoking, would that mean that skim milk causes lung cancer?  Of course not.  I realize that these are unrelated acts, but that is my point.  My family looks at the entire diet, not just one food item in isolation.  I would be foolish for us to start drinking skim milk because of an article that incorrectly links it to obesity and other medical conditions.

carjorbro
carjorbro

Fair enough, I only had one overweight person (a girl) in my class.

sonik555
sonik555

Research is great unless its influenced by large corporations then its business, so use your own critical judgement and make your own conclusions. Obesity rates are sky high in this country and somehow fat free food is not helping it. Perhaps its all the food that has been engineered through research by large corporations to grow a chicken in 30 days instead of 90 by influence of hormones. Same goes for milk from cow to processing to consumption. 

pschoenfeld
pschoenfeld

@rharris50 @pleary  Olive oils and plain fish oil (other than cod or other fish liver oils) contain either zero or tiny tiny amounts of 3 of 4 very important fat soluble vitamins: A, D, and K2.  And while olive oil contains vitamin E, fish oil generally increases the body's requirement for vitamin E, so it is a n overall reducer of vitamin E status in the body.  So while you were trying to help your children, you actually have been reducing their intake of these essential bone building, growth requiring, and artery-protecting vitamins.  What important functions is olive oil necessary for?  For example, do the Eskimos or African tribes consume olive oil as a part of their ancestral diet?  Yes, there is some alpha-linolenic acid in olive oil, but many other foods notably animal fats contain ALA, and even better, the longer chain DHA and EPA, DHA being required for the central nervous system function. Among nutrition researchers,t here is still quite a lot of debate on how much saturated fats contribute to heart disease, and basically no evidence that they contribute to obesity.  

vgupta123
vgupta123

@rharris50 @vgupta123 @SwiftrightRight The myth that saturated fat (as in whole milk) is unhealthy has been busted. See:

http://www.healthcentral.com/diabetes/c/17/101174/broken-saturated

Saturated fats are normal/natural. They are found in mother's milk and in other natural foods. The unsaturated fats are actually less natural; they are created by food processing. The demonization of saturated fats  was necessary to support the dogma that cholesterol causes heart disease (so that the drug industry could sell statin drugs). My family has been using saturated fats (e.g., organic "ghee" or clarified butter) as our primary source of fats for years. Read books like "The Great Cholesterol Con."