Nonfat versus full fat: Which is Best?

Nonfat versus full fat: Which is Best?

If you’re confused about which dairy options are healthiest, you’re not alone. With ever-expanding dairy choices, and conflicting news about what you should be on the lookout for, buying milk, cheese and yogurt has never been so hard.

The Great Dairy Debate

Unlike what you may read on various Internet sites or from Dr. Oz, skim milk is not lower in vitamins or minerals compared to its whole milk counterparts. It’s also not “sugar milk,” as all types of milk–nonfat, 2% or whole–have the same grams of carbs. Since vitamins A and D (present in milk) are “fat-soluble” nutrients, be sure to have some food with fat in it with skim milk will help optimize the absorption of the fat-soluble nutrients. There are also skim milk choices that are hormone-free and organic. At this point, there are no conclusive results to suggest that choosing one is better than the other, so if you’re watching calories, opt for skim or 1% milk. If you’re just using small amounts and weight isn’t an issue, opt for 2% or whole milk.

Cheese and Yogurt

The first ingredient in cheese is milk and most cheese is made from whole milk. It takes about 10 pounds of milk to make a pound of cheese, and therefore, ounce per ounce, regular cheese has more calories, fat, saturated fat and cholesterol than full fat milk.

Due to its popularity, cheese is the number 1 source of saturated fat in the US diet, so it’s best to opt for reduced fat options. (You can skip the fat-free choices as they generally dcheeseon’t taste great nor do they perform well when cooking.) An ounce of most full-fat hard cheeses have about 100-115 calories an ounce, 7 grams of protein, 7-9 grams of total fat and 5-6 grams of saturated fat. Reduced fat is made with a lower fat milk and generally has at least 25-75% less fat and saturated fat than regular cheese and about half as many calories. Nutritionally, the protein and vitamins and minerals are the same, whether it’s regular or reduced fat cheese.

Like cheese, yogurt is made directly from milk. Yogurt is one of the best and worst options you can buy in the dairy aisle—and its healthfulness depends upon the flavor, not whether it’s full fat or fat-free. Plain is the best choice because it’s nutrient-packed, with more calcium and protein per serving than regular milk and it provides live, active probiotic cultures. Greek yogurt is even better because straining makes it higher in protein.

Although yogurt has a health halo, if it’s flavored or a fruit-on-the-bottom variety, it has a lot of added sugar. For example, a cup of plain yogurt has about 7 grams of natural milk sugars but a cup of fruit-on-the-bottom yogurt has as much as 32 grams of sugar or 8 teaspoons! A whole milk yogurt will have up to 200 calories and 7-10 grams of fat per serving; 2% will have 120-150 calories and fat free will have about 100 calories and no fat per serving. If you’re looking to slim down, fat free yogurt provides the best calorie bargain and since plain Greek nonfat yogurt is richer and creamier than traditional yogurt, it won’t taste like it’s fat-free.

Nonfat, Low-Fat or Whole Milk: How They Compare

When shopping for milk, opt for skim or 1% low-fat if you’re interested in managing your weight. If weight isn’t an issue or you use small amounts, it’s okay to enjoy 2% or whole milk.

Milk Type Calories Protein Fat Sat Fat Cholesterol (mg)
Skim 90 8.75 .6 .4 5
Low-fat 1% 105 8.5 2.4 1.5 10
Low-fat 2% 140 9.6 4.8 3.0 20
Whole (3.25% milkfat) 150 7.7 7.9 4.5 24

USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference, Release 25, 2012. (

Written By:
Julie Upton, MS, RD, CSSD
Appetite for Health


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