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Nutrition

Get excited about nutrition, and learn as you go with these information-packed resources on a wide variety of nutrition-centric topics! Our bistroMD experts review the importance of the macronutrients protein, fat, and carbohydrates, as well as how to make them work most efficiently for you.

The Great Debate: Should You Be Drinking Nonfat or Whole Milk?

For years, it has been advised to switch from whole to nonfat milk to reduce total caloric and fat intake. However, new research now suggests the switch may not be necessary.

The Great Debate: Should You Be Drinking Nonfat or Whole Milk?


Milks come in a wide variety: cows, almond, cashew, soy, and the list continues. Add in the various fat contents and flavors of milk, the list goes on even further. So how do you exactly know what milk you should be drinking? How does a dairy allergy and lactose intolerance come into play? Let's take a look!

The Debate Explored

For years, it has been advised to switch from whole to nonfat milk to reduce total caloric and fat intake. However, new research now suggests the switch may not be necessary. A recent study demonstrated that full-fat dairy consumers actually had a reduced risk of developing diabetes compared to those who consumed low-fat. Further research showed women with a diet richer in full-fat dairy had a reduced risk of becoming obese.

With increased fat and calories in whole milk, how could that be so? Some experts contribute these findings related to higher fat and satiety, suggesting those who eat more fat are less likely to be hungry and eat more shortly after. Others predict when low-fat dairy products are consumed, the oftentimes added sugars can still lead to weight gain and affect insulin responses.

Nut and dairy allergies and lactose intolerance are also of concern when choosing milks and dairy products. It is important to understand an allergy is different than an intolerance. A true nut or dairy allergy is an immunological response, involves multiple organs in the body, and can be life-threatening (also known as anaphylaxis). Compared to food allergies, intolerances are often less severe and generally only effects the digestive tract. Read on to better understand what causes lactose intolerance, its associated signs and symptoms, and what milk types can be "the fix."

Lactose Intolerance: MOOOving through the Basics

When individuals deal with lactose intolerance, they are missing an enzyme known as lactase located in the small intestine. This specific enzyme breaks down lactose, the natural sugar found in milk. If milk or other dairy products are consumed, lactose is unable to be broken down in the intestine and mild to severe signs and symptoms can arise. Abdominal pain and cramps, bloat, gurgling sounds in the belly, diarrhea, and vomiting are a few noted physical indicators.

The development of lactose intolerance is not one clear cause, although there are primary and secondary lactose intolerances. Primary lactose intolerance is the most common and genetically determined. Sufficient lactase is produced throughout infancy and childhood, as milk is essential in these developing years, yet declines in teenage and adult years as milk gets replaced with other foods. Secondary lactose intolerance develops following an illness, injury, or surgery involving the small intestine. The disrupt interferes with lactase production and can lead to the progression of lactose intolerance. Additionally, risk factors include a family history of lactose intolerance; premature birth related to reduced lactase levels; individuals who are of Native American, South American, Asian, and African descent; and in teenage or adult years, although the development can occur at any point of the lifespan.

Additionally, lactose intolerance is not exactly developed from milk selections. Instead, milk and dairy product choices can effect the severity of the condition. There really is no treatment for lactose intolerance, but instead remedies that reduces and subsides associated symptoms. Small amounts of milk and dairy products can be tolerated by some while others need to completely remove them. Some individuals may even be able to reintroduce milk back into their diet through experimentation.

When it comes to the type, whole milk and full-fat dairy products are said to be best tolerated. Small serving sizes, drinking milk with other foods, lactose-free or reduced products, and lactase pills are additional lactose intolerance therapies. Since milk is a significant source of calcium and critical for bone health, obtain calcium through foods such as broccoli, soy and rice milk, oranges, pinto beans, and spinach.

Settling the Debate

Choosing milk is certainly individualized based on personal preferences and conditions. If lactose intolerance or a dairy allergy is present, choose milks that are lactose-free to reduce unpleasant side effects. Those dealing with nut allergies should stray away from milks derived from almonds, cashews, and other pinpointed nuts depending on severity. A medical diagnosis and elimination or experimentation with dairy products can further guide which milk you will be pouring into your favorite milk glass or cereal bowl!

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