How to lose weight with whole dairy foods

You know that fat free dairy – cheese and milk – that you buy because it’s got fewer calories and helps you to lose weight? Well, maybe you should know more about what you’re drinking and eating, and weight loss science.

Skim milk (fat free milk) is a byproduct of butter processing. Before World War II, it wasn’t sold in stores. The watery stuff left over from turning cream into butter was discarded.  If not discarded then it was stuff fed to chickens, hogs, and calves. It was a cheap, protein-rich replacement for animal feed as a way of cutting costs. It was not considered anything humans would want to drink.

That changed when dairy producers capitalized on their success selling milk to Uncle Sam during World War II. Emboldened by their success with selling the hog slop to the government, they created postwar marketing to sell skim milk to housewives to serve to their families as a healthier alternative to whole milk.

As the public learned more about the dangers of too much fat in their diet, especially saturated fat, the kind in dairy products, fat free milk and cheese became the accepted way to eat for the health conscious and to lose weight without giving up milk and cheese.

Most weight loss recipes call for fat free milk and cheese if indeed, dairy is in the recipe at all. Fat free dairy effectively cuts both the saturated fat and the overall calories. Why wouldn’t it be the preferred product for consumers watching their weight?

As the fat free dairy industry grew so did the rate of obesity in the U.S. Maybe what Americans know about managing their weight wasn’t so effective? Scientists started looking at weight management as more than just calories in and calories out, which still is the very basic weight loss formula.

There must be reasons why people have trouble balancing calories in and out because we know that’s all we need to do to maintain a healthy weight. We know it’s what to do, but we can’t do it. Research started to reveal that how much we eat is governed by a complex system that engages both our bodies and our minds.

Our body weight, and even how we eat is determined by genetics, conditioning and even environment. There are triggers in our brains and in our bodies that tell us when, what, and how much to eat. The key to managing healthy weight is understanding how all of those triggers work and how to derail, or redirect them.

An important factor in weight management is satiety. If we are in a constant state of hunger and close proximity of food, we will eat in an attempt to feel satiated. We need that content feeling we get when we’re full and satisfied. Some foods are better at making us feel that way than others.

Nutrition scientists began to suspect that foods higher in fat content may be such foods. As we tried to get thinner eating more low-fat and fat-free foods, the result was the opposite. 

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

“Consider the findings of two recent studies that conclude the consumption of whole-fat dairy is linked to reduced body fat.

In one paper, published by Swedish researchers in the Scandinavian Journal of Primary Health Care, middle-aged men who consumed high-fat milk, butter and cream were significantly less likely to become obese over a period of 12 years compared with men who never or rarely ate high-fat dairy.

Yep, that’s right. The butter and whole-milk eaters did better at keeping the pounds off.

“I would say it’s counterintuitive,” says Greg Miller, executive vice president of the National Dairy Council.

The second study, published in the European Journal of Nutrition, is a meta-analysis of 16 observational studies. There has been a hypothesis that high-fat dairy foods contribute to obesity and heart disease risk, but the reviewers concluded that the evidence does not support this hypothesis. In fact, the reviewers found that in most of the studies, high-fat dairy was associated with a lower risk of obesity.”

Based on research as cited above more dieters are starting to rethink the wisdom of using fat free dairy products. If whole milk dairy is more satisfying, and tastes better then what’s the benefit of fat-free? Well, most U.S. health organizations including the American Heart Association and the American Cancer Society still warn us that a diet high in saturated fat puts us at risk for heart disease and cancer. Maybe that’s enough to convince us to keep guzzling the skim milk.

That could be, but perhaps, maybe the smarter thing to do would be to evaluate all that we’re eating as pieces of a puzzle and do a better job or putting the pieces all together. It’s possible, even probable, that if we enjoy a little more whole dairy, we can cut calories by eating fewer foods with added sugars and feel fuller and satisfied longer. That would effectively decrease our overall calorie consumption and lead to weight loss.

Build your food plan on these foods, but don’t eliminate treats (not pictured) completely as they’re important for satiety too.

Oddly, in the past week or so I’ve seem numerous messages in the media, including social media that simply state, “switching to whole dairy instead of fat free will help you lose weight.” This statement isn’t exactly true. The people who switch back to whole milk and full fat cheeses without making any other changes won’t lose weight. Increasing calories, which is what happens, will not give the desired results on the scale.

People will need to continue to monitor and limit calories, but the science of whole fat dairy products suggest that if they make you feel fuller and that feeling of being satisfied keeps the urge to eat away, or to eat less when you do have the urge, then calories get reduced. This makes sense, but it doesn’t take into account that sometimes – make that many times – the overwhelming urge to eat has nothing to do with the physical need for food.


If you want to lose weight and enjoy full fat dairy you need to monitor your food. You need to make sure that your overall calorie consumption doesn’t rise. If the only change you make in what you eat is to replace fat free dairy for full fat dairy you won’t make desired progress with your weight goal.

Jackie Conn

About Jackie Conn

Jackie Conn is married and has four grown daughters and four grandchildren. She is a Weight Watchers success story. She's a weight loss expert with 25 years of experience guiding women and men to their weight-related goals. Her articles on weight management have been published in health, family and women's magazines. She has been a regular guest on Channel 5 WABI news, FOX network morning program Good Day Maine and 207 on WCSH.