Poor nutrition is a cause of poor health. While many of us are aware of this fact and want to eat right and improve our health, we sometimes feel confused by the often contradictory messages and scientific findings appearing in the daily news. Tufts University delivered one such surprise this week, turning the tables on low-fat food advocates.

People who eat full-fat dairy products are less likely to develop diabetes than those who grimly consume low-fat (and low-pleasure) dairy alternatives, say the Tufts researchers.

Led by Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian, the research team looked at circulating blood biomarkers and 15 years of data for 3,333 adults participating in the Nurses’ Health Study and Health Professionals Follow-up Study.  The team discovered participants with the highest levels of dairy fat in their blood had up to 46 percent lower risk of developing diabetes over the 15-year span compared to those who had the lowest levels of dairy fats in their blood.

“There is no prospective human evidence that people who eat low-fat dairy do better than people who eat whole-fat dairy,” Mozaffarian told Time Magazine. Apparently, skim milk is not the hero we once believed.

Fat, Carbs, Sugar

“Fat gives things flavor,” Julia Child famously said. Anyone doubting the truth of her assertion need only taste, side by side, skim and full-fat milk or low-fat and full-fat yogurt. Taste buds (and Child) never lie.

Yet, full-fat dairy products contain more calories than lower fat dairy products and many people want to avoid putting on the extra pounds — one of many risk factors for diabetes. So, with the blessing of health experts, many people shifted from regular dairy to skim and other low-fat options in the name of protecting themselves from diabetes. Yet, past research has also shown a tendency to replace fat with sugar or carbohydrates (in an attempt to boost missing flavor once fat is gone) but sugar and carbs are even worse culprits when it comes to diabetes risk.

Worse still, the low-fat products may not help with weight gain either. Three years ago, for instance, Swedish researchers published a study indicating 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.

Taking all this into account for the current study, Mozaffarian and his colleagues adjusted their calculations. They discovered the connection between eating full-fat dairy and a lower risk of diabetes still held, regardless of any weight gains or losses.

Mozaffarian says his results are preliminary and should not yet be taken as diet advice. Prior to this, he published a review of dietary priorities where he suggested the rapid advance of nutrition and policy science has created “confusion.” (Indeed!) Among the themes he emphasizes in the review is the importance of “recognizing the complex influences of different foods on long-term weight regulation, rather than simply counting calories.”  When eating for health and longevity, we must look at the bigger picture.

Source: Yakoob MY, Shi P, Willett WC, et al. Circulating Biomarkers of Dairy Fat and Risk of Incident Diabetes Mellitus Among US Men and Women in Two Large Prospective Cohorts. Circulation. 2016.