Why full-fat food could be the healthiest option

Why full-fat food could be the healthiest option

Fat is back. At least, according to the Waitrose 2023 Food and Drink report. Low-fat dairy alternatives are one of the food and drink trends falling out of favour, with one-third of the 2,000 people they surveyed saying they’ve switched from eating a low-fat dairy product to a full-fat one.

Since the ‘fat-free’ fad diet craze of the 1980s, which led to the US and UK introducing dietary guidelines with the aim of reducing fat intake, fat has been deemed the enemy. In particular, high fat intake was connected to weight gain and coronary heart disease, and therefore removing fat from products was deemed an easy health win. Saturated fat in particular, which is present and often high in dairy products, has been linked to high cholesterol levels and, as a result, increased risk of heart attacks and strokes. Research has also found that higher intake of saturated fat is linked to an increased risk of type two diabetes and dementia. As a result, many countries advise their citizens to choose low-fat options as part of a healthy diet.

However the thinking on this is changing, relating to dairy in particular. Studies in recent years have contradicted the idea that high fat dairy causes obesity or type two diabetes. There are even studies that show a potentially preventative effect: eating dairy is associated with a reduced risk in some cancers and metabolic syndrome, while certain fatty acids found in dairy could help reduce the risk of developing type two diabetes and heart disease.

Focusing purely on nutritional components over ‘whole foods’, argues one paper, means saturated fat is associated carte blanche with high cholesterol – but the impact on LDL cholesterol concentration actually varies depending on the product consumed. And a 2020 study found that children who ate full-fat dairy fared far better health-wise than those who ate the low-fat versions.

This remains a controversial claim – a 2015 paper which claimed the dietary guidelines of the 80s “lacked any solid trial evidence” was refuted by scientists as “potentially dangerous”. There are still questions about what impact different kinds of fats can have on our health – both saturated like monounsaturated and polyunsaturated, as well as other fats like the trans fatty acids found in whole milk.

As the research is still in its early days, the consensus is that saturated fat in and of itself doesn’t get a free pass, so countries including the UK continue to recommend low-fat options in their dietary guidelines (last updated in 2018).

And yet as the Waitrose report has found, consumers are making the switch to full-fat dairy products anyway. In particular, people between 18 and 35 in Europe are consuming three times more dairy in 2022 than they did in 2019. And those who eat dairy aren’t dropping it despite the cost of living crisis, according to the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board.

Part of this is simply the fact that eating a full-fat yoghurt or having a Proper Flat White is far more filling. Priya Tew, specialist dietitian and nutritionist running Dietitian UK, says that “with some products such as yoghurt, full-fat versions can be more satisfying leading to you enjoying the product more. They can also be more satiating, leaving you fuller for longer.” Health-wise, both low and full-fat options have roughly equal amounts of calcium, though the process of removing fat from milk can also inadvertently strip it of valuable fat-soluble nutrients like vitamins A, D and E (skimmed products are often fortified with vitamins after processing).

Tew says that they can be psychologically satisfying too; knowing you aren’t restricting yourself won’t lead to overcompensating and can sate cravings. “I encourage my clients to choose normal/full-fat versions of foods over diet products – in my opinion buying diet products can make you constantly feel you are restricting yourself.”

Then there’s the question of added sugars. In the Waitrose survey, one of the reasons given for people making the switch is concern about ‘hidden sugars’ in low-fat options where sugar or artificial sweeteners have been added to compensate for the removal of flavour, turning yoghurt into an ultra-processed food. UPFs have recently been linked to a host of health issues, (including obesity, heart disease, strokes) though again, the research on this is still in its early stages.

“Some lower fat products can be higher in sugar and sweeteners,” Priya cautions, “which may have an impact on the gut microbiome.” A recent study from Anglia Ruskin University found that three widely-used sweeteners (saccharin, sucralose and aspartame) can make helpful gut bacteria become hazardous to our health. Aspartame has been linked to an increase in inflammation and an increased risk of stroke, while acesulfame potassium and sucralose were linked to higher risk of coronary heart disease. “This does not mean we should avoid these foods totally”, she adds, “but eating them in large amounts may not be sensible.”

So should you make the switch to full-fat dairy in 2024? Priya advises asking yourself what you actually prefer and exploring how often you actually consume the product. If you prefer low-fat milk then keep on keeping on. If you don’t often eat yoghurt, then you might as well eat the version you prefer.

If you’re looking for explicit health benefits, fermented sources of dairy in particular (like kefir, live yoghurt and some aged cheeses) have the added positive impact on your gut health by adding to your microbiome. And perhaps most importantly, Priya says that before any changes you make in 2024, focus on what is achievable rather than what makes big promises.

“I would encourage people to stay away from all the diet products, foods and talk. Short-term diets just do not work long term and can damage your relationship with food. Instead focus on long term changes that you can make and stick to. These changes will add up over time, so go for the longer term aims and really work on being kind and compassionate to yourself.”