How To Choose A Supplemental Nutrition Shake

Nutritional Supplements for Eating Disorder Recovery - Katie Grubiak, RDN By Katie Grubiak, RDN

In a previous post, we discussed the role of supplemental nutritional shakes in eating disorder recovery. Sometimes, patients in recovery will be unable to restore their nutrition entirely with food. In these cases, the use of supplements can be invaluable. If you or a loved one are restoring nutrition from an eating disorder, you should be under the care of a medical doctor (MD) & registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN).

In this post, we will continue the discussion about supplements, comparing different supplement brands based on caloric density per ounce, macronutrient comparison (fat, carbohydrates, protein), and label advertising. Lastly, we’ll rate them for taste and palatability.

Caloric Density

Substantial caloric density per ounce is the most important factor in the selection of a liquid supplement. To optimize replacing calories in a meal, we recommended selecting a product that delivers at least 300 calories per 8- to 11-ounce serving. Any under-300 calorie product is insufficient to replace a meal or even a majority of a meal for someone in recovery from an eating disorder, and should instead be treated as a calorically dense beverage to be added alongside a meal or snack. Alternatively, multiple shakes—2 or 3—can together replace a meal.

Serving size is important. Any product that comes in serving sizes larger than 11 ounces has the risk of being too filling—someone recovering from an eating disorder may not finish it, meaning that the precious calories will never be delivered.

Macronutrient Comparison

A comprehensive liquid supplement should be evaluated against the same dietary recommendations as a normal meal. The caloric nutrients or “macronutrients” that we hope to balance in a meal are protein, carbohydrates (carbs), and dietary fat. The goal is that supplements have a macronutrient profile similar to a balanced plate.

Macronutrients are often measured in terms of “exchanges”:

  • Fats: One dietary fat exchange equals 5 grams of fat. A recovery meal is often recommended to include at least two to four fat exchanges. Aim for 10-20 grams fat in an 8-11 ounce supplement.
  • Carbohydrates: One carb exchange equates to 15 grams of total carbohydrates. Meals in recovery are recommended to include at least two to four carb exchanges. Aim for 30-60 grams total carbs in an 8-11 ounce supplement.
  • Protein: One ounce of meat, chicken, or fish equates to one protein exchange, or 7 grams of protein. Meal building suggestions for animal or vegetarian protein sources are usually anywhere from two to four exchanges. Aim for 14-28 grams protein in an 8-11 ounce supplement serving.

I don’t advise comparing micronutrients—the trace amounts of added vitamins and minerals—among products because this is not important when the goal is increased intake. Instead, stay focused on the caloric constitution of a supplement including its macronutrient profile so that the primary objective of ensuring weight gain or maintenance is achieved.

Ingredients

Products labels can sometimes bear so much “health” messaging that it can be difficult to pull out what is truly important. One product label claims a better, more natural ingredient; another vouches it is more “non”-something than any other product…. This can get confusing!

To streamline the process, we recommend starting off with identifying whether or not the product is dairy free. This is an important concern for people who keep Kosher, are lactose intolerant, or have a milk protein allergy. Look specifically to see if the product says dairy-free, or suitable for lactose intolerance (might have dairy/lactose but in low concentrations). If you have a milk protein allergy, specifically screen for such ingredients as milk protein concentrate, casein (all forms), whey (in all forms), & milk (in all forms).

Second: identify whether or not gluten is an issue for you. You only need to do this if you have a known gluten issue diagnosed by a medical professional—for most people, gluten is a harmless component of a normal diet. If gluten is an issue, check to see whether the supplement is labeled gluten-free.

Third: check the label for any other known food allergy ingredient.

Last, check the “Nutrition Facts” on the back label for calorie and macronutrient comparison. I suggest stopping there and not diving into a deeper ingredient comparison. Any scrutinizing beyond this is unimportant and likely giving the eating disorder too much power. In the end, this kind of label attention diverts from the true function of the use of supplementation in eating disorder recovery—to replace calorically a substantial meal with a concentrated liquid when all or partial meal cannot be consumed.

To reiterate, your primary considerations when choosing a supplement are caloric density and macronutrient profile. Weight maintenance and weight gain comes from calories—not from the presence of more natural ingredients or the absence of processed ones. It’s understandable to want to use a supplement that checks off every box marked “healthy”—but this can add fuel to the eating disorder’s fire.

Labeling is part of the product—you can’t avoid it. But you don’t have to let the eating disorder make choices based on irrelevant labeling information that appeases its instincts. When you provide a supplement to a family member in recovery, you can always remove or cover up the label, or simply pour it into a cup, to reduce a triggering reaction.

 

EDTLA reviewed a number of supplement brands and taste-tested some of them. Taste was rated on a scale of 1 (yuck) to 10 (yum). Each brand has numerous product variations in its lineup—we were not able to review every variety. Note that many drugstore and grocery chains carry their own store brands – of these, we included Rite Aid, CVS, and Kroger in our analysis and tasting.

 

Ensure Product Family

Ensure brand nutritional supplementsEnsure Original

Product positioning: #1 doctor recommended brand, kosher, gluten-free, suitable for lactose intolerance, not for people with galactosemia

Calories: 220 calories per 8-ounce serving

Macronutrients: 6 g fat, 33 g total carbs, 9 g protein

Ingredients: Carbohydrate sources: corn maltodextrin, sugar. Protein sources: milk protein concentrate. Fat sources: canola oil, corn oil

EDTLA TASTE RATING: Not tasted

Ensure Plus

Product positioning: 50% more calories than Ensure Original, gluten-free, suitable for lactose intolerance, not for people with galactosemia, balanced nutrition to help gain or maintain a healthy weight, kosher, gluten-free, suitable for lactose intolerance

Calories: 350 calories per 8-ounce serving

Macronutrients: 11 g fat, 50 g total carbs, 13 g protein

Ingredients: Carbohydrate sources: corn maltodextrin, sugar. Protein sources: milk protein concentrate, soy protein isolate. Fat sources: blend of vegetable oils (canola, corn).

EDTLA TASTE RATING: Chocolate flavor 8; Strawberry flavor 7; Vanilla flavor 8

 

Ensure Enlive

Product positioning: designed to help rebuild your strength and energy from the inside, with an ALL-IN-ONE blend to support your health. The label claims bone, muscle, heart, digestion, & immune support, flavored-natural & artificially flavored, suitable for lactose intolerance, gluten-free, kosher, not for people with galactosemia

Calories: 350 calories per 8-ounce serving

Macronutrients: 11 g fat, 44 g total carbs, 20 g protein

Ingredients: Carbohydrate sources: corn syrup, sugar, short chain fructo-oligosaccharides. Protein sources: milk protein concentrate, sodium caseinate, soy protein isolate, whey protein concentrate. Fat sources: corn oil, canola oil.

EDTLA TASTE RATING: Strawberry flavor 8

 

Ensure Clear

Product positioning: great-tasting, clear liquid nutrition drink that contains high-quality protein and essential nutrients, fat free, gluten-free, suitable for lactose intolerance

Calories: 200 calories per 6.8-ounce serving

Macronutrients: 0 g fat, 43 g total carbs, 7 g protein

Ingredients: Carbohydrate sources: sugar, corn syrup solids. Protein sources: whey protein isolate

EDTLA TASTE RATING: Apple flavor 8. Also available in mixed berry (not tasted)

 

Boost brand nutritional supplementsBoost Product Family

Boost

Product positioning: a great-tasting nutritional drink as a mini-meal or between-meal snack with 26 vitamins & minerals, 3 g of fiber, & 10 g of high quality protein, gluten-free, suitable for lactose intolerance, not for individuals with galactosemia, kosher

Calories: 240 calories per 8-ounce serving

Macronutrients: 4 g fat, 41 g total carbs, 10 g protein

Ingredients: Carbohydrate sources: corn syrup, sugar, fructo-oligosaccharides. Protein sources: milk protein concentrate, soy protein isolate. Fat sources: vegetable oil (canola, high oleic sunflower, corn)

EDTLA TASTE RATING: Not tasted

 

Boost Plus

Product positioning: helping to achieve and maintain a healthy weight, 3 g fiber, 26 vitamins & minerals, gluten-free, suitable for lactose intolerance, not suitable for people with galactosemia, kosher

Calories: 360 calories per 8-ounce serving

Macronutrients: 14 g fat, 45 g total carbs, 14 g protein.

Ingredients: Carbohydrate sources: corn syrup, sugar. Protein sources: protein concentrate, soy protein isolate, fructo-oligosaccharides. Fat sources: vegetable oil (canola, high oleic sunflower oil, corn)

EDTLA TASTE RATING: Chocolate flavored 6; Vanilla flavored 5

 

Boost Breeze

Product positioning: a convenient source of additional protein & calories in a fruit-flavored drink, suitable for lactose intolerance, gluten-free, kosher, not for individuals with galactosemia

Calories: 250 calories per 8-ounce serving

Macronutrients: 0 g fat, 54 g total carbs, 9 g protein

Ingredients: Carbohydrate sources: sugar, corn syrup. Protein sources: whey protein isolate (milk)

EDTLA TASTE RATING: Peach flavored 7 (“like peach Snapple”); Berry flavored 6 (“like Hi-C”), Orange flavor 3 (“medicine like”)

 

Store brand nutritional supplementsStore Brands

Rite Aid Original Nutrition Shake

Product positioning: advertised compare to Ensure, natural & artificial flavors, gluten free, suitable for lactose intolerance, not for people with galactosemia, kosher

Calories: 220 calories per 8-ounce serving

Macronutrients: 6 g fat, 33 g total carbs, 9 g protein.

Ingredients: Carbohydrate sources: corn maltodextrin, sugar, sucromalt. Protein sources: milk protein concentrate, soy protein isolate, pea protein concentrate. Fat sources: soy oil, canola oil

EDTLA TASTE RATING: Chocolate flavored 6

 

CVS Nutritional Shake

Product positioning: – naturally & artificially flavored, made with real diafiltered milk, gluten free, suitable for lactose intolerance, kosher

Calories: 220 calories per 8-ounce serving

Macronutrients: 6 g fat, 33 g total carbs, 9 g protein.

Ingredients: Carbohydrate sources: sugar, brown rice syrup, corn maltodextrin, sucromalt. Protein sources: milk protein concentrate, soy protein concentrate. Fat sources: soy oil, canola oil, corn oil. Diafiltered skim milk contributes to carbs & protein amount simultaneously.

EDTLA TASTE RATING: Milk chocolate flavor (not tasted)

 

Kroger Nutrition Shake Fortify Plus

Product positioning: -advertised as to help gain or maintain a healthy weight & kosher, naturally & artificially sweetened milk chocolate

Calories: 350 calories per 8-ounce serving

Macronutrients: 11g fat, 50 g total carbs, 13 g protein.

Ingredients: Carbohydrate sources: corn maltodextrin, sugar. Protein sources: milk protein, soy protein isolate. Fat sources: corn oil, canola oil.

EDTLA TASTE RATING: Chocolate flavored 6

 

Orgain brand nutritional supplementsOrgain Organic Nutrition Product Family

Product positioning: weight management, meal replacement, or for medical needs;-also gluten-free, soy-free, non-GMO, high protein, organic & kosher.

Complete Protein Shake-Sweet Vanilla Bean

Designated as Grass Fed Dairy

Calories: 250 calories per 11-ounce serving

Macronutrients: 7 g fat, 32 g total carbs, 16 g protein

Ingredients: Carbohydrate sources: organic brown rice syrup, organic cane sugar, organic rice dextrins. Protein sources: organic grass fed milk, protein concentrate, organic whey protein concentrate. Fat sources: organic high oleic sunflower oil

EDTLA TASTE RATING: 4

 

Plant Based Protein Shake-Smooth Chocolate

Designated as Vegan & Dairy Free

Calories: 220 calories per 11-ounce serving

Macronutrients: 6 g fat, 25 g total carbs, 16 g protein.

Ingredients: Carbohydrate sources: organic rice dextrins, organic cane sugar. Protein sources: organic brown rice protein concentrate, organic hemp protein concentrate, organic chia seeds, organic flax powder. Fat sources: organic high oleic sunflower oil

EDTLA TASTE RATING: 4

 

Kate Farms Product Family

Product Positioning: certified gluten free, free of common allergens (no milk, wheat, soybeans, peanuts, tree nuts, eggs, fish, shellfish), corn-free, 18 g plant based protein, MCT oil in some varieties, 29 superfoods, kosher. Contains organic ingredients. Kate Farms is a family start-up company based on the love and re-nourishment of a daughter with Cerebral Palsy. This is a great choice if looking for a multi-tiered caloric supplement company that is non-dairy and has alternative macronutrient sources than the mainstream brands. Kate Farms Core Essential Formulas may be covered by insurance for oral use and tube feeding. Coverage depends on the patient’s diagnosis and insurance plan.

 

Komplete

Calories: 290 calories per 11-ounce serving

Macronutrients: 8 g fat, 41 g total carbs, 16 g protein

Ingredients: Carbohydrate sources: brown rice syrup solids, organic agave syrup. Protein sources: organic pea protein, organic rice protein. Fat sources: organic high oleic sunflower oil

EDTLA TASTE RATING: Available in Chocolate/Coffee/Vanilla (not tasted).

 

Core Essentials Standard Formula 1.0 cal/mL:

Calories: 325 calories per 11-ounce serving

Macronutrients: 10 g fat, 41 g total carbs, 18 g protein

Ingredients: Carbohydrate sources: brown rice syrup solids, organic agave syrup. Protein sources: organic pea protein, organic rice protein. Fat sources: organic high linoleic sunflower oil, medium chain triglycerides (MCT) derived from coconut oil.

EDTLA TASTE RATING: 4 chocolate flavor, 2 vanilla flavor “chalky”

 

Core Essentials Peptide Plus 1.5 cal/mL:

Calories: 500 calories per 11-ounce serving

Macronutrients: 25 g fat, 41 g total carbs, 24 g protein

Ingredients: Carbohydrate sources: brown rice syrup solids, organic agave syrup. Protein sources: organic hyrolyzed pea protein, organic rice protein. Fat sources: organic sunflower oil, medium chain triglycerides (MCT) derived from coconut oil, organic flax seed oil.

EDTLA TASTE RATING: Plain flavor 1 (perhaps best not to drink alone but add to a shake or mix in foods for extreme nutrient density or just use in tube feedings)

 

Other Brands/Products

Benecalorie brand nutritional supplementsBenecalorie

Product positioning: calorie and protein food enhancer, mixes easily into most foods & beverages including milkshakes/yogurt/hot cereal/mash potatoes, unflavored, suitable for lactose intolerance, gluten-free, kosher, not for people with galactosemia, not recommended for tube feeding (not a liquid)

Calories: 330 calories per 1.5-ounce serving

Macronutrients: 33 g fat, 0 g total carbs, 7 g protein

Ingredients: Carbohydrate sources: no carbohydrates but does contain the artificial sweetener sucralose. Protein sources: calcium caseinate from milk. Fat sources: high oleic sunflower oil

EDTLA TASTE RATING: By itself: not tasted. Mixed into oatmeal as suggested 7 (“not a significant change in taste or texture of oatmeal”)

 

I hope this review is helpful and provides encouragement to venture into supplements if recommended by your treatment team.

The Use of Supplemental Shakes in Eating Disorder Recovery

By Lauren Muhlheim, PsyD and Katie Grubiak, RDN

Nutritional supplements in eating disorder recovery - shakes

Restoring nutritional health is an essential part of recovery from any eating disorder, including anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating disorder. The process of nutritional rehabilitation involves eating sufficient food at regular intervals, which reestablishes regular eating patterns and allows the body to recover. In this post, we will discuss the role of supplemental nutritional shakes in eating disorder recovery. In our next post, we will taste-test the different brands and formulations of nutritional shakes on the market, share our opinions, and help you decide which to buy if you are considering using shakes in your or a loved one’s recovery.

Nutritional Rehabilitation

Since many eating disorder patients – even those who are not at low weights – can be malnourished, renourishment is an important step. Ideally it should take place under the guidance of both a medical doctor and a registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN) who can develop a meal plan uniquely suited to the needs of the patient.

Repairing a depleted body can require a very high caloric intake. The recommended rate of weight gain is usually one to two pounds per week – for many of our clients, this translates into required dietary intakes of 3000 to 5000 calories per day. However, it can be unsafe to increase intake to this level immediately due to the risk of refeeding syndrome, a serious condition caused by introducing nutrition to a malnourished person. Calories need to be increased incrementally under a doctor’s supervision and with an RDN’s guidance.

Getting Sufficient Intake

Many people with eating disorders will be able to restore their nutrition entirely with food. And while we always think it is best for patients to eat real food, and that is the ultimate goal, there are many situations in recovery in which the use of supplements can be invaluable. Sometimes, especially early in recovery, it can be hard for patients to get in enough calories via food alone.

During early recovery, when early fullness is a common issue, fortified shakes may be easier both physically and mentally to consume than food. And when getting in enough calories by eating calorically dense foods is too tough, we think the use of supplements is a perfectly good alternative. It is always better than not eating enough.

Supplement Products

Nutritional supplements, made by a number of different companies, contain nutrients in a calorically dense liquid or “shake.” Six to eight ounces of these products typically have between 200 and 350 calories, depending on the brand and formulation. Many large supermarket and drugstore chains sell shakes under their own names, some of which we tested as well. The best-known brands sold commercially in the US are Boost and Ensure, which come in different flavors and are usually sold in plastic bottles. The main lines are dairy based, but there are non-dairy versions known as Boost Breeze and Ensure Clear, which are packaged in juice boxes and may be ordered online. There are formulations with even higher caloric density (e.g. Boost Plus). In hospital settings, these products are used for patients who are unable to eat – following a stroke, for instance – or need extra nutrition. They can also be used in tube feeding.

In recent years, additional companies have emerged to compete with the Boost and Ensure brands. Several companies are developing products emphasizing organic and natural ingredients. Not all of these products are designed with the same goal in mind. Some are in fact marketed to a clientele that is concerned about losing or maintaining weight through low-calorie, “healthy” meal or snack replacement. These products could inadvertently displace foods, beverages, and other liquid supplements that would be much better suited for appropriate weight gain and eating disorder recovery, all the while delivering messages that could reinforce eating disorder thinking. We recommend thinking carefully about your objectives, researching the products you plan to buy, and proceeding with caution.

How to Use Supplements

Supplements taste better chilled than at room temperature. They can be added to a meal in lieu of a lower-calorie beverage, drunk as a standalone snack, or used in the preparation of oatmeal, smoothies, or milkshakes. They can be consumed more quickly than solid foods and can serve for quick convenient nutrition, especially on the go.

They can also be used as replacements. In some eating disorder residential treatment centers, three supplements would be considered the nutritional equivalent of a meal. A patient who refused to eat altogether would be offered three nutritional drinks; one who ate half the meal would be asked to drink two; one who ate most of the meal but didn’t finish would be asked to top off with a single supplement. Parents refeeding children at home can decide whether to offer an alternative meal or liquid replacement when a child refuses to eat or finish a meal or snack.

Instead of bringing home a multitude of varieties, select one supplement brand in perhaps one or two flavors. Limiting unnecessary choice will head off an opportunity for the eating disorder to assert itself in the form of pickiness.

Take Home

The take-home message: supplemental shakes can be a great tool for ensuring adequate nutrition during the refeeding process in eating disorder treatment. Finding the supplement best suited to you or your loved one from among the available options can be overwhelming. Substantial caloric density is your first concern – but finding one that suits your palate is essential to making sure it goes down. Fortunately, the major brands have made a variety of flavors and textures from which you can choose.

We look forward to sharing further recommendations on the nutritional aspects as well as the results of our taste test. We taste-tested many so you don’t have to. Stay tuned as our follow-up blog will delve into further supplement guidance.

I’m not the villain! My side of the story… by Starch

Starch in Eating Disorder Recovery
Winter Artwork Illustrations

By Katie Grubiak, RDN

Hey, I have something to say!

Don’t forget my importance!

Although maligned by Atkins and many others, I’m not really the bad guy.

This is why:

  • I contain the falsely feared primary energy source in the diet: carbohydrate.  My carbohydrates along with those found in the fruit & milk groups should make up 50-65% of total calories consumed. I supply 4 calories per gram.  If you are very physically active I encourage you to use my power and consume me to reach the higher percentage so you have plenty of energy to soar!
  • As a carbohydrate, I am the preferred source of energy or fuel for biologic work in humans:
  • I contribute to the mechanical work of muscle contraction
  • I provide chemical work that synthesizes cellular molecules
  • I help transport various substances in the intracellular & extracellular fluids
  • I provide fuel for the central nervous system.
  • I enable metabolism of dietary fat (the other macronutrient you likely fear).
  • I prevent protein (likely the only macronutrient you perceive as safe) from being used for energy thereby allowing protein to be used for what it’s intended –building & repairing body tissue & making antibodies, hormones, and enzymes.
  • I become glycogen (stored glucose) for readily-available energy to support physical activity.
  • I’m in your favorite meals and come around often frequently since so many foods include me.  It’s hard to get rid of me!
  • Meals are not the same without me & you know it!
  • The foods that contain me provide vitamins/minerals/phytochemicals that you have been taking via a daily multi-vitamin pill.  Actually, my nutrients are in food form and are therefore better absorbed & utilized such as:  B Complex Vitamins, Vitamin A/E/C, Choline, Inositol, Calcium, Cooper, Iron, Magnesium, Phosphorus, Potassium, Selenium, Zinc.
  • Without me, you may experience strong urges to binge. I help to create satiation.  Blood sugar regulation requires all three of us macronutrients: carbohydrates, protein, & fat in just the right combination.  We help each other out to help you have the most optimal blood sugar & metabolism.  We also together prevent the HANGRY feeling!
  • Believe it or not, some vegetables also include me even though many think they escape me.  Thank goodness I still have a presence in people’s lives even if they don’t acknowledge me.

The average recommended number of daily servings of starch for adults ranges from 9-12 exchanges for a 2000 to 2500 calorie meal plan.

Check out these excellent starch foods.

Each serving or one “exchange” of a bread/grain/cereal/starchy vegetable listed equals 15 grams of carbohydrates:

  • 1 regular slice of bread (white, pumpernickel, whole wheat, rye)
  • ½ English muffin
  • ½ hamburger bun
  • 1/4 bagel or 1 ounce (can vary)
  • ½ pita-6 inches across
  • 1/3 cup cooked rice, brown or white
  • ½ cup cooked pasta
  • ½ cup cooked legumes (beans, peas, lentils)
  • ½ cup cooked barley or couscous
  • ½ cup cooked bulgur
  • 3oz potato, sweet or white
  • ½ cup mashed potato
  • ½ cup sweet potatoes, plain
  • 1 cup winter squash (acorn or butternut )
  • ½ cup corn
  • 4-6 crackers
  • 1 tortilla -6 inches across
  • ½ cup cooked cereal
  • ¾ cup dry cereal
  • 3 cups popcorn
  • ¾ ounce pretzels
  • 1 plain roll-1oz

Recipes Featuring Starch

Some easy & quick ways to make sure you get enough starch (notice that the other macronutrients -protein & fat- just come around naturally):

Microwavable French Toast

Starch in Eating Disorder RecoveryIngredients:

¼ cup milk

1.5 TB syrup

1 tsp cinnamon

1 egg

pinch salt

1.5 slices any bread

1 TB butter

Directions:

Spread butter on bread and slice into cubes. Put cubes into mug and whisk together wet ingredients and then pour them over the bread and stir to cover bread cubes with liquid. Microwave on high for 2 minutes. Top with sliced bananas or berries and it’s a balanced breakfast.

Tuna Pesto English Muffin Open Faced Sandwich

Ingredients:

1 whole separated English Muffin

Tuna 3oz

Mayo to taste-I like Trader Joes Mayo with expeller pressed oils

Himalayan pink salt & lemon-pepper to taste

Pesto to taste

Heirloom tomato-sliced

Lettuce of choice-2 leaves

Directions:

Make tuna salad by adding mayo, salt, lemon pepper to taste in bowl.

Toast the separated English muffin to preferred goldenness.

Spread a layer of pesto on each half of toasted muffin.

Add the tuna salad to the English muffin with pesto.

Garnish with a lettuce leaf and sliced tomato.

Katie Grubiak, RD is a Registered Dietitian and Director of Nutrition Services at Eating Disorder Therapy LA.  You can read more about her here.

Thank you to Winter Artwork Illustrations for use of the photo.

The Hidden Benefits of Full Fat Dairy by Katie Grubiak, RD

Galbani Whole Milk Mozzarella Cheese
full fat dairy
Galbani Whole Milk Ricotta Cheese
Greek Gods’ Greek Yogurt

History of the Low-Fat Movement

Since the 1980s, physicians, the federal government, the food industry, and popular media have championed the low-fat approach to dieting and weight control. The idea stemmed from a few studies published in the 1940s, which showed a correlation between high-fat diets and high-cholesterol levels. Because high-cholesterol levels were known to be a major risk factor for heart disease, low-fat diets were highly recommended as a preventive measure for at-risk individuals, and eventually for the entire nation. This advice became so widespread by the 1980s that reduced-fat and low-fat options dominated the diet-related product market.

The Argument for Low-Fat Dairy

Although this national preoccupation with low-fat products has waned since the 1990s, low-fat dairy products have sustained their popularity. Low-fat dairy products are lower in calories and saturated fat than their full-fat counterparts, while still boasting substantial amounts of protein and calcium. To experts worried about slowing the impending “obesity epidemic”, low-fat dairy at first seems an obvious choice – especially if choosing low-fat products can help prevent heart disease.

The Issue with the Low-Fat Dairy Argument

There’s just one problem with this logic – according to a review article recently published in the European Journal of Nutrition, there is no conclusive evidence to suggest that full-fat dairy consumption is associated with increased risk of obesity, heart disease, or diabetes. In fact, in 11 of the 16 studies reviewed, high-fat dairy intake was inversely associated with obesity risk. In a 12-year longitudinal study conducted in Sweden, researchers Dr. Sara Holmberg and Dr. Andres Thelin found that men who reported a low intake of dairy fat (skim milk, no butter, etc.) had a higher risk of developing obesity in the 12-year period than were men who reported a high intake of dairy fat.

Why Whole Dairy?

Much of this research may come as a surprise to those familiar with the calories-in, calories-out model of weight maintenance. How could eating dairy products that are significantly higher in calories help people avoid weight gain?

Researchers aren’t certain why full-fat dairy may aid in healthy weight maintenance, but there are a few ideas gaining traction in the field: 

  • Fullness 
    • To produce low-fat dairy products, “excess milk fat” is separated out of whole dairy. Much of this “excess milk fat” is made up of fatty acids found in milk, which are thought to make people feel full sooner and stay full longer. Thus, low-fat dairy products simply don’t keep you as full as whole dairy products do.
    • The fatty acids in whole milk also make whole dairy products richer, thicker, and more satisfying, which can add to the experience of fullness, and keep you full for longer.
  • Role in Gene Expression & Hormone Regulation.
    • The fatty acids found in whole milk may be involved with gene expression and hormone regulation in the body. Though these relationships are unclear, it is possible that fatty acids speed up metabolism or limit the body’s storage of fat.
  • Real Food, Not Just Nutrients.
    • Though macronutrient content can tell us a lot about the health benefits of food, whole fat dairy is more than just the sum of its (major) parts. Real food is a complex mix of macro (fat, carbohydrates, protein) and micro (vitamins and minerals) nutrients. Absorption of all of these macro and micronutrients is dependent upon several factors, so altering the macronutrient breakdown of dairy products (by removing fat) changes the way these products are metabolized by the body.For instance, Vitamins A, D, E, and K are fat soluble nutrients, which means that absorption of these nutrients is compromised when no fat is present.

When I have helped my clients with eating disorders to add full fat diary products back into their diet after a period of having avoided them, positive changes take place.  They often notice a decrease in food obsession and a reduction in volume of intake. Although most clients fear overeating whole full fat (and higher calorie) products, this does NOT happen. Instead, portion control often occurs more naturally since satiety comes from the taste, texture, & actual full fat macronutrient presence.  Clients recognize that they CAN feel in control but still go to their favorite real full fat foods which they previously feared and avoided. In reality, the low fat foods were the ones that they could not limit.   I have only seen satiety benefits as well as metabolic benefits of a diet higher in fat, 30-35% of total calories. To try it for yourself, I suggest:

Some recipes incorporating whole fats

  • *Maple Hill Creamery 100% Grass-Fed Organic Milk Creamline Yogurt-Lemon flavored with granola & banana for breakfast
  • *The Greek Gods Greek Yogurt-Honey Strawberry flavored with cut up pear for a snack
  • *Toasted Caprese Open Faced Sandwich-
    • French Sandwich Roll-cut in half
    • Expeller Pressed Extra Virgin Olive Oil
    • Fresh Basil Leaves
    • Heirloom Tomatoes Sliced
    • Galbani Fresh Whole Milk Mozzarella or Galbani Whole Milk Low-Moisture Mozzarella Cheese

    • Pink Himalayan Salt

  1. Drizzle the olive oil over each half of the sliced French roll
  2. Place sliced Whole Milk Mozzarella Cheese over the French roll with olive oil
  3. Lay Basil Leaves on top of the Mozzarella
  4. Lay sliced Heirloom Tomatoes over the Basil
  5. Grind & sprinkle Pink Himalayan Salt over the Tomatoes
  6. Opened faced-Toast in toaster oven for 3-5 minutes or heat in oven 350 degrees F for 5-8 minutes

Sources:

  • The full article from European Journal of Nutrition can be found here.
  • The full article from the Scandinavian Journal of Primary Health Care can be found here.
  • For a through and clear explanation of this topic, refer to this TIME Magazine article.
  • An additional study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition can be found here and is summarized here.
  • Another article is here.

Research Assistant, Erin Standen contributed to the writing and research of this post.