The Hidden Benefits of Full Fat Dairy

by Katie Grubiak, RDN, eating disorder dietitian at Nutrition Illumination

Read our new post about the importance of including dairy in eating disorder recovery.

History of the Low-Fat Dairy 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.

Benefits of Full Fat Dairy [Image description: photo of glass of milk and cookies] representing a snack of full fat milk and cookies of a client in eating disorder recovery in California
Photo by Brian Suman on Unsplash

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

However, there is a major 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 an increased risk of “ob*sity,” heart disease, or diabetes. In fact, in 11 of the 16 studies reviewed, high-fat dairy intake was inversely associated with “ob*sity” 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 “ob*sity” in the 12-year period than were men who reported a high intake of dairy fat.

Why Whole Dairy?

We encourage the incorporation of dairy into eating disorder recovery diets.

Dairy and Eating Disorder Recovery in Los Angeles, California [Image description: a person driving a bottle of milk through a straw] Illustrating a potential person in eating disorder recovery incorporating milk
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 not lead to more weight gain?

Researchers aren’t certain why full-fat dairy doesn’t cause weight gain, but there are a few ideas gaining traction in the field: 


  • To produce low-fat dairy products, “excess milk fat” is separated from 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. This 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.Joyful Eating in Los Angeles, California [Image description: drawing of 2 females joyfully eating ice cream] Represents potential eating disorder counseling clients in Los Angeles, California challenging diet rules and eating even when not hungry

    When I have helped my clients with eating disorders to add full-fat dairy 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 the volume of intake. Although most clients fear overeating whole full-fat (and higher calorie) products, this does NOT happen. Instead, less “overeating” often occurs 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, low-fat foods were the ones that they could not limit. I have only seen satiety and metabolic benefits of a diet higher in fat, 30-35% of total calories. To try it for yourself, I suggest the following recipe ideas.

    Some recipes that incorporate 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 the toaster oven for 3-5 minutes or heat in oven 350 degrees F for 5-8 minutes

    Get Help For an Eating Disorder in California

    For dietary eating disorder counseling with Katie Grubiak, contact her at Nutrition Illumination.

    For counseling with one of EDTLA’s eating disorder psychotherapists, contact EDTLA.


    • 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.

    Skip to content