Should You Drink Skim Milk or Whole Milk?

The answer is not as obvious as you might think. Check out the pros and cons of each before you fill your glass.

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Woman checking ingredients on back of milk carton in supermarket

Photo by: FangXiaNuo

FangXiaNuo

Whether you're pouring milk into a bowl with cereal, steaming it for a latte or sipping it straight up, you're probably wondering if skim or the whole-milk variety is the best choice. The answer: "It's a personal matter," says Jennifer McDaniel, MS, RDN, CSSD, a dietitian in St. Louis. "Which milk you choose should be looked at in the context of your overall dietary patterns, taste preferences and body composition goals."

Then there's the issue of confusing dairy science. When you look at the research on dairy and saturated fats, it's straight-up confusing and often conflicting. The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend you limit your saturated fat intake to 10% or less of your total daily intake — so no more than 22 grams of fat in a 2,000-calorie daily diet. A cup of whole milk contains close to 5 grams of saturated fat, per the USDA National Nutrient Database, while the same amount of skim milk (aka nonfat milk) contains less than 1 gram of saturated fat, according to the same source.

But here's the confusing part: "Data suggests that milk fat compared to saturated fat from meat may not be associated with negative health outcomes such as cardiovascular disease," says McDaniel. Some research also reveals that eating dairy fat isn't specifically connected with an increased risk of stroke. McDaniel advises her clients with a high risk of chronic disease, such as heart disease or type 2 diabetes, to drink whatever type of milk they prefer. "But I recommend that overall, they aim to meet saturated fat guidelines," she adds. "This might mean they eat less meat or take in fewer fried foods or high-fat desserts."

There's even research to suggest that eating high-fat dairy could be a good thing, that it may be helpful for weight loss. Full-fat milk has also been connected with improved fertility, adds McDaniel.

If you're looking only at the calories and protein, skim milk is the clear winner. It has 83 calories and 8 grams of protein per cup, while the same amount of full-fat milk contains 149 calories and a little less protein. But some people find the taste and mouthfeel of full-fat milk to be much more satisfying. "If you prefer the taste of full-fat milk, you can find other ways to lower calories in your diet so whole milk can fit," says McDaniel. Can't make up your mind? You can always choose 1% or 2% reduced-fat milk.

Whichever milk you choose, you're getting a plethora of health-helping vitamins and minerals from that glass of moo. These nutrients include bone-helping calcium, and many milks are fortified with vitamin D — which is also helpful to bone health. Regularly eating dairy may help lower your risk of osteoporosis. "Dairy is also associated with a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, lower blood pressure and [reduced risk of] type 2 diabetes in adults," notes McDaniel.

At the end of the day, "we've still got a lot to learn on the topic of dairy and dairy fat," says McDaniel. "More studies need to be conducted on the different levels of milk fat and health outcomes."

Now, go enjoy your glass of milk — whether it's whole milk, reduced-fat milk or skim milk.

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Amy Gorin, MS, RDN, is a registered dietitian nutritionist and owner of Amy Gorin Nutrition in the New York City area. She's a regular contributor to many publications, including EverydayHealth.com, ReadersDigest.com, NBCNews.com, and more. She also pens a recipe-focused blog, Amy's Eat List, where she shares easy, healthy recipes. Connect with her on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest.

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