What kind of milk should I buy for my family?

New research questions the advice that higher fat in whole milk is detrimental to your health suggesting that it may even reduce some health risks.

At a recent meeting in Grand Rapids, a friend asked me “so what kind of milk should I buy for me and my kids?” She wondered which was better; fat free (skim), 1%, 2% or whole milk (3.25% butterfat). We talked a little about how much milk her kids were consuming and what her main concerns were.

I knew that most teenagers do not consume the recommended 3 servings of dairy products per day (that’s 24 ounces of milk). In fact research has shown that the average teen boy consumes 12 ounces per day (1/2 the recommended intake) and teen girls drink only 7 ounces per day (less than one serving of milk). So the first point I made was that if they are consuming dairy at the level of the average teenager, than the first, bigger issue is to get them drinking more milk, whatever kind it is.

The second point I made was to look at their entire diet to determine where they are getting their calories and fat from and to also look at their activity level. There is a difference in calories from milk, but it isn’t as big as you think, with whole milk at 150 calories per 8 ounce serving, 2% at 120 cal., 1% at 100 cal., and fat free at 80 cal. Even if you and your teenagers are drinking 3 servings of milk per day, the difference is 210 calories from whole to fat free. I’ll bet you can find 210 calories of less nutritious food in your child’s diet to cut if calories are a concern. For some adults with slowing metabolism, the calories may begin to be an issue and we can certainly move to lower fat content (as is recommended by the USDA My Plate). However, research shows that if we trade those fat calories for simple sugars, we may be making a bad choice so make sure you are still consuming your dairy products.

One of the reasons people have looked to lower fat dairy products is concerns over saturated fats. At issue is the association of saturated fat in the diet and heart disease. Recent reviews of research involving dairy consumption and health effects show a much more complicated story. Recent research discussed in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 2010, even showed that men and women who had the highest levels of milk fat biomarkers—suggesting they consumed the most dairy fat—were actually at a lower risk of heart attack. So what’s going on? First, reviewers suggest that all saturated fats may not be the same, and that there is increasing evidence to support that the total matrix of a food is more important than just its fatty acid content. Second, it appears that a number of minerals in milk have a beneficial effect on blood pressure, and that calcium helps to lower blood total and LDL-cholesterol without reducing HDL-cholesterol.

Most studies involved in research reviews were conducted prior to the late 1980s so additional research needs to be conducted on low fat vs. whole milk, but what is clear is that even in the whole milk studies there is no consistent evidence that a higher intake of dairy products is associated with chronic heart disease. In fact, some research reviews showed reduced risk of stroke, type 2 diabetes and colon cancer with milk consumption. New research, as noted above, is also indicating a health benefit of dairy product consumption.

How should you make your dairy decisions? First, ensure that you and your family are consuming the recommended three dairy servings per day. Second, take a look at your total diet and look for healthy vs. unhealthy choices you are making as well as your total calories and fat. Third, look at your activity level.

Is everything in balance, or do you need to make some adjustments? Start your diet changes with removing some unhealthy snacks and replacing them with fruits and vegetables. Increase your activity level and if changes are still needed, you may want to look at lower fat choices in the dairy products you consume to reduce your caloric intake.

Want to listen to this article? The audio version is available on the Dairy Moosings Podcasts website.

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