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Is dairy good for me or not?

Last Modified: April 11, 2024

Nutrition & Recipes


This post was written by Thomas Arend, RD, LD, Parkview Health.

Grocery staples like milk, cheese, yogurt and ice cream are a large part of the American diet. While plant-based alternatives are becoming more popular, dairy consumption continues to increase, and so does confusion over the true nutritional benefits of these products. Rich in protein, calcium, phosphorus and potassium, it’s no wonder that dairy is often recommended as part of a healthy diet. But questions around full-fat versus low-fat versions persist. This article aims to lay out some of the research behind dairy fat content and health outcomes so that you can make more informed decisions about what goes into your body.

What the big organizations are saying …

If you examine what large health and government organizations currently recommend regarding dairy fat and health, you will find a similar narrative.

“Move to low-fat or fat-free dairy milk or yogurt” – United States Department of Agriculture, MyPlate

“Choose 2–3 servings of fat-free or low-fat dairy products for adults.” – The American Heart Association

Articles on, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics website, recommend low-fat and fat-free dairy, referencing USDA’s MyPlate. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also echoes the USDA's low-fat/fat-free dairy recommendations. If you’ve ever received education from a registered dietitian, you likely were recommended low-fat or fat-free dairy, as the handouts provided by the Academy all recommend low-fat dairy.

What the research says …

In 2019, Harvard School of Publish Health published a new opinion, stating, “To the surprise of many, research in the 2000s defied these longstanding guidelines to suggest that full-fat dairy foods might be just as healthful as their lower-fat counterparts, provoking scientists to look more closely at all dairy products.”

Their research resulted in the Harvard School of Public Health’s “Healthy Eating Plate,” which is their version of the USDA’s MyPlate, with one very big food group missing–dairy.

Additionally, deep within the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics website, past the professional login, with enough searching, you will find this statement, “Low certainty of evidence demonstrates that a variety of dairy products are not associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease.”

These professional organizations’ statements bring more nuance to the nutritional value of dairy, and what its role should be in our daily diet.  

Now what?

So, why is there a disconnect between these health and research organizations? The recommendation for low-fat and fat-free dairy is largely based on the diet-heart hypothesis, the widely accepted theory that dietary intake of saturated fats causes heart disease. The majority of dairy fat is saturated fat, and thus, reducing dairy fat would conveniently fit within the diet-heart hypothesis.

The problem is that much of the research doesn’t bear this out. Study after study finds that low-fat dairy does not improve outcomes; it may be the opposite, that high-fat dairy improves outcomes. Specific findings on some of the largest studies show that full-fat dairy intake is not associated with obesity. Furthermore, research suggests full-fat dairy is not linked to higher cardiovascular risk, and full-fat fermented dairy, like yogurt and cheese, may be associated with lower cardiovascular risk. Lastly, studies show that consuming full-fat dairy isn’t connected to higher mortality compared to low-fat and fat-free.

Now you’re probably thinking, if this research is true, why are guidelines still recommending low fat? If research is waves in the ocean, the guidelines are the slowly eroding and changing shoreline. One study likely won’t change much, but continued research might. Large organizations resist change, especially in a field as nuanced and challenging as nutrition. It’s important to do your own research and be curious about the food you’re putting into your body. Tune into how certain ingredients make you feel, read the latest findings and make the right decisions for you and your family.

For more articles like this, browse the Nutrition & Recipes section of our blog, the Parkview Dashboard.



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