The Full-Fat Paradox: Whole Milk May Keep Us Lean : The Salt Two recent studies add to the growing evidence that consuming dairy fat may actually fend off weight gain. Experts say it may be time to revisit the assumption that when it comes to dairy, fat-free is always best.

The Full-Fat Paradox: Whole Milk May Keep Us Lean

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At this time, when we're constantly told to watch what we eat, it's almost gospel that skim milk and low-fat yogurts are better for you. But if you looked at some parts of the dairy industry, you'd see that in places like the organic markets, sales of full-fat dairy are up. Maybe organic buyers had the right instinct. Two new studies have a counterintuitive finding: People who make a habit of consuming high-fat dairy tend to be leaner. NPR's Allison Aubrey reports.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Breakfast time can be noisy at the Cullaty home in Charlottesville, Virginia.

MARTHA CULLATY: It's really crazy in our house between seven and eight.


AUBREY: No, that's not a chainsaw. That's a blender. And like a lot of families, the Cullatys love smoothies. So, what did they toss in today?

CULLATY: It was full-fat yogurt, a banana and some ice.

AUBREY: You won't find fat-free in this home. Full-fat yogurt is the norm. Martha Cullaty says she and her husband and their two kids like the taste better.

CULLATY: It just tastes richer and not watered-down.

AUBREY: And she thinks the fat naturally found in dairy is good for her kids, especially since they don't eat much meat.

CULLATY: They're both fairly thin and very active. And so I didn't see any need to eliminate those calories.

AUBREY: Cullaty is not alone. Increasingly, moms like her like the idea of eating whole foods, unprocessed. If you take the fat out of milk, what else are you losing? Now, many researchers say this is a good question, and especially since several new studies have found - perhaps surprisingly - that people who eat higher fat dairy tend to be leaner than people who stick with skim products.

GREG MILLER: I would say it's counterintuitive.

AUBREY: That's Greg Miller, a scientist with the National Dairy Council. He says consider new findings from a big independent study. Swedish researchers analyzed the eating habits of a few thousand middle-aged men. They found the men who ate fatty butter and high-fat milk had lower rates of obesity by the time they reached their 50s and 60s, compared to the men who seldomly or never ate cream, butter or fatty milk.

MILLER: This finding is consistent with a lot of other observational studies that show that higher dairy fat intake is associated with reduced body fat.

AUBREY: So, the question is: Why might this be? Well, it's possible that high-fat dairy makes people feel full, so they eat less. Or, Miller says, maybe it's something more complicated.

MILLER: There may be bio-active substances in the milk fat that may be altering our metabolism in a way that helps us utilize that fat and burn it for energy, rather than storing it in our body.

AUBREY: Now, clearly, there needs to be more research before folks are encouraged to eat more dairy fat. After all, the original recommendations to limit it were driven by concerns about cholesterol. And most experts would say that adults with high cholesterol should stick with low-fat alternatives. But how about children? The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that kids switch to low-fat dairy at age two. But pediatrician Mark DeBoer says this high-fat dairy paradox has been documented in children, too. He studied the milk habits of some 10,000 kids in the U.S. and found that those who drank low-fat milk were more likely to be heavy.

MARK DEBOER: The thing that struck us the most - first of all, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children drink low-fat milk specifically so that they won't gain weight over time. But when we looked at what happened over time, among those who were drinking the low-fat milk, even those who started normal weight were more likely to become overweight than those who were drinking higher-fat milk.

AUBREY: That's actually quite - it sounds surprising.

DEBOER: It really surprised us at the time.

AUBREY: So, given all of the recent evidence, some experts say it might be best to revisit the assumption that fat-free dairy is always best. Allison Aubrey, NPR News.

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