How to Choose Between Low-Fat and Full-Fat in the Dairy Aisle

Here's the science behind cheese, yogurt and more.

September 23, 2020
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Photo by: chelovek/Getty Images

chelovek/Getty Images

In general, dairy fat is back in favor. Researchers reviewing the growing body of scientific evidence have found that consuming more full-fat dairy foods than low-fat dairy is associated with lower risk of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, mortality, and potentially weight gain. But does that mean butter and ice cream are the new superfoods? Not exactly.

Here’s a break down the best choices in the dairy aisle when it comes to low-fat versus full-fat options.

Yogurt: Eat What You Like

The best yogurt to eat is the type you like. Plain Greek and plain regular yogurts are both packed with beneficial probiotics, plus a long list of nutrients like protein, calcium, potassium, vitamin A, riboflavin and more. However in several studies including the Prevention with Mediterranean Diet study it is eating full-fat yogurt that is most closely associated with lower risk of weight gain. Choose plain yogurts then add fruit for flavor.

Cottage Cheese: Low-Fat Usually Has More Protein Per Serving

Few studies have looked specifically at fat-free versus higher-fat cottage cheese. If you’re purely interested in protein content, lower-fat cottage cheese can have two to three grams more of protein per serving than a classic 4% milkfat version. However, fat-free and reduced-fat versions often have a drier curd and a less creamy consistency; additionally, additives and gums may be added to mimic the texture of whole milk fat.

Sour Cream: Just Skip It

Again, there is little research on sour cream, but when it comes to light versus regular sour cream we actually say neither. Instead, opt for Greek yogurt. The tangy flavor of Greek yogurt is similar to sour cream but with many more important nutrients; thick Greek yogurt is spoon-able and is comparable in baking.

However, if your taste buds are truly craving sour cream, satisfy them with the similar taste of light sour cream. Full-fat sour cream can have around 50% more calories than lighter versions and since sour cream research is lacking, it's okay to cut a few calories here. Just make sure to grab light instead of fat-free sour cream as the texture of fat-free can be noticeably different from the full-fat version.

Cheese: Go for Full Fat

This dietitian is not really a fan of the flavor of fat-free anything; as the saying goes: Fat is flavor. Fat in foods can lead to feeling fuller and more satisfied after a meal. Cheese is included in many of the studies linking whole milk dairy foods with healthy outcomes, including reduced risk or neutral associations with heart disease. A comprehensive meta-analysis of 18 population studies concluded that eating cheese was associated with a 3% lower risk for stroke, especially when participants ate about 1 ounce per day of cheese.

Bottom Line: Full Fat Dairy Can Be Part of a Healthy Diet

Calories count. But if dairy foods are consumed at the suggested serving size and don’t contain added sugars (like flavored yogurts), full-fat dairy foods can be consumed regularly within the context of a healthful diet. Without the regular consumption the recommended three servings of dairy foods daily, it can be difficult to meet daily nutrient needs for calcium, potassium, vitamin D, magnesium and vitamin A. If drinking and eating whole milk dairy means it will actually be eaten and enjoyed, grab a spoon and a glass!

Serena Ball, MS, RD is a registered dietitian nutritionist, food writer, and mom of four children. She blogs at TeaspoonOfSpice.com and is the author of the best-selling The 30-Minute Mediterranean Diet Cookbook and the newly released Easy Everyday Mediterranean Diet Cookbook. Follow her @TspCurry on Twitter and Instagram.

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