Cow's milk has been a staple in the American diet for decades, but with confusing news headlines suggesting you opt for almond or coconut milk varieties instead—or that skim milk is okay but whole milk is not—it's pretty easy to get mixed up about which kind (if any) to choose.
But let me say this: All types of unsweetened milk (including cow, almond, soy, cashew, and more) can fit into a balanced diet. And choosing the full-fat variety of dairy isn't going to hurt you. In fact, it may help you, according to a recent study in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Researchers found that consuming dairy—including milk—may help prevent weight gain as you age.
The study authors looked at more than 18,000 women ages 45 and older who were normal weight and had no history of diabetes, tracking both their weight and daily dairy intake over an average of 11 years. Women who ate dairy daily (between 0.6 and 3.9 servings) gained 3.6 to 4.2 pounds—with less weight gain occurring for those who had the highest dairy intake.
When high-fat dairy (such as whole milk and butter) and low-fat dairy (like fat-free milk and yogurt) were studied separately, small amounts of weight gain were only found in the high-fat dairy group. That group was also associated with a lower risk of becoming overweight or obese, while low-fat dairy consumption was not.
Other studies show similar findings, linking higher dairy intake with lower increases in weight and waist circumference over time—although those studies associate yogurt intake with lower weight gain, whereas this study links it with higher weight gain. (However, it isn't clear whether authors in this study separated findings for low-fat and high-fat yogurt.) Additionally, other research correlates high-fat dairy intake with a lower risk of both cardiovascular disease and coronary heart disease.
Study authors believe the findings may be attributed to certain beneficial nutrients found in dairy, like protein, vitamin D, and calcium (although supplemental vitamin D and calcium were not associated with lower risk of becoming overweight or obese in the study). Higher-fat dairy tends to be more satiating than the low-fat type, and consuming it leaves less room—and cravings—for you to munch on caloric foods like baked goods.
Bottom line: This study doesn't give you the go-ahead to eat cream, butter, and ice cream at every meal. But don't be afraid to incorporate a glass of milk, a cup of cottage cheese, or yogurt into your day. And if milk upsets your stomach, you can also consider a2 Milk, a variety that still comes from cows, but lacks the A1 protein that's in typical cow's milk and can cause gastrointestinal discomfort.
Amy Gorin, M.S., R.D.N., is a registered dietitian nutritionist and owner of Amy Gorin Nutrition. She counsels private clients in Jersey City, NJ and long distance. She's a motivational speaker, journalist, and brand ambassador for The a2 Milk Company. Connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.