If You’re Concerned About Diabetes, Think Twice About Buying Skim Milk

Recent research shows that full-fat dairy isn’t so bad for you after all.
(Photo: Michael Wildsmith/Getty Images)
Apr 19, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Alex Janin is an editorial intern at TakePart and a senior at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.

For years, people trying to lose weight and avoid type 2 diabetes have been advised to stick to a low-fat diet—and the nation’s grocery shelves are accordingly well stocked with low- and reduced-fat processed foods. After all, a low-fat cookie is seemingly perfect for dunking in a glass of skim milk.

But as some health experts question the wisdom of ditching full-fat foods—particularly when the alternatives tend to be pumped full of sugar and additives—a new study reveals that full-fat dairy products could be a boon to folks looking to dodge a diabetes diagnosis.

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The research, which was published late March in the American Heart Association’s journal, Circulation, found that dairy fat may help prevent type 2 diabetes. The authors analyzed blood sample data from roughly 3,300 adults ages 30 to 70 in the late 1980s, the early 1990s, and again in 2010. “People who had the most dairy fat in their diet had about a 50 percent lower risk of diabetes,” study coauthor Dariush Mozaffarian told NPR on Monday.

Previous research has shown that full-fat dairy is not necessarily tied to obesity or even a higher weight. A 2013 study showed that kids who drink nonfat or low-fat milk were more likely to become overweight or obese than their counterparts who drank 2 percent or whole milk. Another found that the consumption of high-fat dairy lowered the risk of stroke, obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.

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This latest research comes at a time when, on average, Americans simply aren’t drinking as much milk as they used to. Since the 1970s, adult consumption of liquid milk has decreased by almost 40 percent, whereas consumption of dairy products such as yogurt has risen significantly each year. Even the famous “Got Milk?” campaign was dropped in 2014 and replaced by one that emphasizes the nutritional benefits.

Kids also aren’t drinking as much milk as they used to since a National School Lunch Program policy requiring that only skim and nonfat milk be served in schools was implemented in 2012. Still, about 429 million gallons of milk were consumed or thrown away in U.S. schools during the 2013 school year.

Part of the drop in consumption may be owing to conflicting messages surrounding the health ramifications of dairy consumption. Some health agencies have argued that liquid milk provides essential nutrients that are hard to replace, but opponents have been vocal too. In 2012, a Washington, D.C.–based vegan and animal-rights advocacy group filed a petition with the U.S. Department of Agriculture asking that milk be banned from school lunches. The petition argued that the harmful effects of saturated fat and sugar in milk outweigh the benefits of the calcium and other nutrients it contains.

In 2012, roughly 29 million people across the United States were diabetic, which cost the health care system about $249 billion, according to the American Diabetes Association. Mozaffarian said the school policy deserves a second look after his recent findings. “Our research indicates that the national policy should be neutral about dairy fat until we learn more,” he said.

Pediatric doctor Mark DeBoer told NPR there might be other factors at play that contributed to the study’s results. For example, full-fat dairy products may make you feel fuller than nonfat versions, which could cause you to eat fewer sugary foods and carbohydrates. Drinking whole milk, he said, “may be protective if the other food options are high in calories.”