Is reduced-fat milk better for you than regular-fat milk?


The evidence statements in the Australian Dietary Guidelines (ADGs) indicate that all varieties of cow’s milk are associated with numerous health benefits, including a reduced risk of coronary heart disease, stroke, hypertension, type 2 diabetes and some cancers1. The evidence that underpins the ADGs also indicate that milk, cheese and yoghurt which contain saturated fat, are protective against many chronic diseases and are not linked to weight gain2. This is due to the package of nutrients, and complex nutrient interactions that come with eating whole foods in the context of a balanced diet3.

Recently, a randomised controlled trial published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that reduced or no-fat dairy foods, typically prescribed as part of the original DASH diet, can be substituted for regular-fat dairy foods without sacrificing the health benefits that comes with adherence to the original DASH diet . 
Results revealed that both the original and modified DASH diet significantly reduced systolic and diastolic blood pressure when compared with the control diet. Although the modified DASH diet with regular-fat dairy was 6 per cent higher in saturated fat compared with the original pattern, this did not increase total or LDL cholesterol levels4. This study supports findings from other research showing that milk, cheese and yoghurt, including both regular-fat and reduced-fat varieties are not implicated in cardiovascular disease risk factors5.

There are potential health implications when advising patients to switch from regular-fat to reduced-fat dairy foods. When participants in a weight loss trial were advised to consume only reduced-fat dairy foods, some participants, particularly men, significantly decreased their overall intake of dairy foods6. The results of this study suggest that it may be more beneficial to encourage people to choose the dairy foods they prefer in order for them to gain the nutritional benefits, rather than risk a further drop in daily intake from the dairy food group. This is particularly important in the Australian context, as 90 per cent of Australians are not consuming enough foods from the dairy food group in their daily diet7.

The ADGs state that most people need 2½ to 4 serves from the dairy food group every day, with the number of recommended serves varying according to age, sex and life stage8. The ADGs recommend choosing mostly reduced-fat dairy foods, meaning that 50 per cent of intake from dairy foods should come from reduced-fat varieties. However, this recommendation is not related to health benefits of reduced-fat in comparison to regular-fat dairy foods, rather it simply focuses on the overall kilojoule content of the diet. The focus should be placed on limiting energy dense, nutrient poor discretionary (junk) foods from diets, rather than nutrient rich foods from the five food groups.

Providing nutrition advice

Both reduced-fat and regular-fat milk have the same health benefits and package of essential nutrients, which means for many, the choice between milk varieties can be based on personal preference to ensure people are meeting the recommended daily serves. Visit the Foods That Do Good Resources page to download the Milk Factsheet for your patients.

1 National Health and Medical Research Council. Australian Dietary Guidelines, Canberra: Commonwealth of Australia; 2013.

2 National Health and Medical Research Council. Australian Dietary Guidelines, Canberra: Commonwealth of Australia; 2013.

3 Chiu, S., Bergeron, N., Williams, P. T., Bray, G. A., Sutherland, B., & Krauss, R. M. (2016). Comparison of the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet and a higher-fat DASH diet on blood pressure and lipids and lipoproteins: a randomized controlled trial. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 103(2), 341-347.

4 Chiu, S., Bergeron, N., Williams, P. T., Bray, G. A., Sutherland, B., & Krauss, R. M. (2016). Comparison of the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet and a higher-fat DASH diet on blood pressure and lipids and lipoproteins: a randomized controlled trial. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 103(2), 341-347.

5 Astrup A, Rice Bradley BH, Brenna JT, Delplanque B, Ferry M, Torres-Gonzalez M. Regular-Fat Dairy and Human Health: A Synopsis of Symposia Presented in Europe and North America (2014-2015). Nutrients. 2016;8(8):463.

6 Nolan-Clark D, Mathers E, Probst Y, Charlton K, Batterham M, Tapsell L. Dietary Consequences of Recommending Reduced-Fat Dairy Products in the Weight-Loss Context: A Secondary Analysis with Practical Implications for Registered Dietitians. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. 2013;113(3):452-458.

7 Australian Health Survey: Consumption of Food Groups from the Australian Dietary Guidelines. Australian Bureau of Statistics. Released 11 May 2016.

8 National Health and Medical Research Council. Australian Dietary Guidelines, Canberra: Commonwealth of Australia; 2013.