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Nutrition

Is Whole Milk Better Than Low Fat and Skim Milk?

By Becky Bell, MS, RD and ).

In fact, recent studies suggest that skim might not always be the best health-promoting choice when it comes to milk.

This article will review how the different types of milk stack up to determine which is the best option.

Catherine Falls Commercial/Getty Images

Different types of dairy milk: Whole, low fat, and skim

There are several types of milk available in the dairy aisle of most grocery stores, which mainly differ in their fat content.

Whole milk is sometimes referred to as “regular milk” because the amount of fat in it has not been altered. Skim and 1% milk are produced by removing fat from whole milk.

Fat content is measured as a percentage of the total liquid by weight. Here’s the fat content of popular milk varieties:

  • whole milk: 3.25% milk fat
  • low fat milk: 1% milk fat
  • skim: less than 0.5% milk fat

This table summarizes the nutrients in 1 cup (237 mL) of several milk varieties (, , ):

Skim milkLow fat milkWhole milk
Calories84106152
Carbs12 grams13 grams11.5 grams
Protein8.5 grams8.5 grams8 grams
Fat0.2 grams2.5 grams8 grams
Saturated fat0.1 grams1.5 grams4.5 grams
Omega-3 fatty acids0 grams0.01 grams0.04 grams
Calcium25% of the DV24% of the DV24% of the DV
Vitamin D14% of the DV13% of the DV12% of the DV
Phosphorus21% of the DV20% of the DV20% of the DV

Since fat contains more calories per serving than any other nutrient, milk with a higher fat content is higher in calories ().

Though each type of milk contains a similar amount of micronutrients, the amount of vitamin D can differ slightly. However, because most milk manufacturers add vitamin D to milk, each variety generally contains a similar amount ().

Another significant nutritional difference between milk varieties is the amount of omega-3 fatty acids, a type of fat that has been linked to many health benefits, including improved heart and brain health, as well as lowered inflammation. The more fat a cup of milk has in it, the higher its omega-3 content ().

Additionally, studies have shown that organic whole milk contains an even higher amount of omega-3s than regular whole milk. However, this distinction is mostly seen in “grass-fed” milk, which is almost always organic anyway. So if you’re looking for higher omega-3s per serving, check to make sure you’re buying grass fed milk (, , ).

Summary

The major difference between the types of dairy milk available is fat content. Whole milk contains more fat and calories than skim milk.

Whole milk: Is it unhealthy?

For years, nutrition guidelines have been instructing people to avoid whole milk, mainly due to its saturated fat content.

Mainstream nutrition recommendations advise limiting saturated fat because it can increase cholesterol levels, which is a risk factor for heart disease ().

Based on this information, experts made the assumption that saturated fat must increase the risk of heart disease. However, there was no experimental evidence to prove that this was true (, ).

In the 1970s, public policy was adopted based on this assumed connection between saturated fat and heart disease. As a result, official guidelines instructed people to reduce their saturated fat intake ().

A cup (237 mL) of whole milk contains 4.5 grams of saturated fat, which is about 20% of the daily amount recommended by the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. For this reason, the guidelines recommend consuming only low fat or skim milk (, ).

In recent years, this recommendation has been called into question. There is emerging experimental data to indicate that eating moderate amounts of saturated fat does not directly cause heart disease (, ).

Summary

In the past, whole milk was considered unhealthy because of its saturated fat content, but recent research does not fully support this recommendation.

, , ).

Originally, researchers believed that saturated fat increased cholesterol levels, which in turn increased the risk of heart disease. However, the relationship between saturated fat and cholesterol is much more complicated.

For starters, although saturated fat does increase levels of LDL (bad) cholesterol, it also increases levels of HDL (good) cholesterol, which can actually help protect against heart disease (, ).

Additionally, there are different types of LDL, and it’s the very small, dense particles of LDL that have the most damaging effects on the heart and arteries. Though saturated fat can increase cholesterol levels, it actually changes LDL from the small, dense particles to the large, less harmful particles (, , ).

Furthermore, other research suggests that certain foods high in saturated fat may impact heart health differently. For example, one review showed that cheese and yogurt were actually linked to a lower risk of heart disease, while red meat and butter were tied to a higher risk ().

For this reason, it’s important to consider the overall nutritional composition of an ingredient rather than focusing solely on the individual nutrients it contains ().

Even though a lot of new research is questioning the direct connection between saturated fat and heart health, it still can increase cholesterol levels in some individuals. Therefore, those with heart disease or high cholesterol levels may want to consider swapping out foods high in saturated fats for other ingredients instead.

In particular, studies show that replacing saturated-fat foods with whole grains or polyunsaturated fats — a type of fat found in foods like olive oil, nuts, and seeds — could be beneficial for long-term heart health (, ).

Summary

Though it’s still important to moderate your saturated fat intake if you’re living with health conditions like high cholesterol or heart disease, studies are now showing that moderate saturated fat consumption does not directly increase the risk of heart disease in otherwise healthy individuals. Additionally, certain foods that contain saturated fat may affect heart health differently.

Always talk with your doctor about your specific health issues before incorporating new dietary patterns.

Whole milk and weight management

Many people avoid drinking whole milk because they assume the extra fat and calories will cause them to gain weight. However, many studies have shown that consuming high fat dairy products may actually help support weight management instead.

According to one 2016 study of 18,438 women, increased intake of full fat dairy products was linked to a lower risk of weight gain over an 11-year period. On the other hand, there was no significant association between low fat dairy intake and weight gain ().

Another study from 2017 found that dairy fat intake was not linked to a higher risk of weight gain, heart disease, or type 2 diabetes ().

Similarly, one 2020 review of 29 studies concluded that full fat dairy consumption was not associated with weight gain or fat gain in children ().

The relationship between milk and weight management has been a research topic for several years, and findings have been inconsistent. However, most of these studies either include all types of dairy products or focus on low fat dairy (, , ).

In studies that look at only high fat dairy products, like whole milk, there is a pretty consistent connection between full fat dairy and lower body weight, suggesting that whole milk can be a great addition to a well-rounded, nutrient-dense diet and may help you maintain a moderate weight.

Summary

While more research needs to be done, there is not much evidence that drinking whole milk instead of skim causes weight gain.

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  • Type 2 diabetes. In one large study, people with the highest amount of dairy-derived fatty acids in their bloodstreams had a 44% lower rate of diabetes. However, more research is needed, as some other studies have found that full fat and nonfermented dairy products may be associated with a higher risk (, , ).
  • Infertility. Although more research is needed, some studies suggest that drinking milk may be associated with improved reproductive health and fertility in women ().
  • It’s important to note that many other factors, such as physical activity, daily diet, and personal health history all play a role in the development of chronic diseases. Therefore, drinking whole milk is one small part of a much larger equation.

    Summary

    Drinking whole milk as part of a nutritious diet may actually have some health benefits, including a reduced risk of metabolic syndrome. It may also protect against type 2 diabetes and improve reproductive health for women, but more research is needed.

    , ).

    Skim milk is also considered a nutrient-dense ingredient, meaning it provides a large dose of vitamins and minerals with very few calories.

    In fact, skim milk is one of the richest food sources of calcium, providing around 325 mg per cup. This is even higher than the calcium content of whole milk, which is 306 mg per cup (, ).

    It can also be a great way to increase your intake of several other important vitamins and minerals, including vitamin D, phosphorus, and potassium ().

    Summary

    Skim milk provides approximately the same amount of protein and calcium as whole milk but contains fewer calories.

    By Becky Bell, MS, RD and Celia ShatzmanMedically reviewed by Jared Meacham, Ph.D., RD, PMP, MBA, CSCS Updated on February 17, 2022
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