What’s the Deal with Full Fat Dairy?

When I worked as a primary care dietitian, not a day passed without me recommending the substitution of low-fat or nonfat dairy products for their full-fat counterparts. Whether I was seeing someone with heart disease or high cholesterol, obesity or diabetes, choosing low-fat/nonfat dairy was a no-brainer. However, a growing body of evidence suggests this recommendation may be at best ineffective, and at worst counterproductive.

There were two main reasons the medical field touted the superiority of low-fat dairy for so long:

  • Saturated fat has long been associated with high cholesterol and heart disease. Full fat dairy is higher in saturated fat than low-fat/nonfat dairy.
  • Low calorie diets are associated with healthy weight management. Full fat dairy is higher in calories than low-fat/nonfat dairy.

What’s changed? The short answer is nutrition science itself. Until recently, nutrition science has focused on isolated nutrients instead of actual foods.

In the case of saturated fat and heart disease, science looked at the effect of saturated fat overall. It did not distinguish whether it came from animal fat (think the fatty gristle on a t-bone steak), dairy fat (think whole milk) or vegetable fat (think coconut oil). All foods have unique fatty acid profiles, each of which may have different metabolic effects. Even a food group’s subsets, like milk, yogurt, cheese and butter, which all fall under the dairy umbrella, have different profiles and different effects. When the full fat dairy group is teased out from the other saturated fat sources, it does not appear to be significantly related to risk of heart disease.

In the case of calories and weight control, science has long held that a calorie, is a calorie, is a calorie. Fat has more calories per gram than protein and carbohydrates (9 calories per gram versus 4 calories per gram), so therefore reducing calories by choosing lower fat alternatives was thought to aid in weight management. However, new research indicates that full fat dairy is associated with improved weight control. While the reason isn’t fully understood, one hypothesis is that full fat dairy is more filling than low-fat/non fat dairy alternatives, so those who consume the latter compensate by eating more calories (most often from refined carbohydrates) later on.

So, what’s a dairy eater to do? Here are my recommendations:

  • Enjoy full fat versions of the dairy you currently consume if you’d like. Be moderate. Three servings of dairy a day is plenty. That could be one cup whole Greek yogurt for breakfast, a small whole milk cappuccino midmorning and an ounce or two of cheese crumbled atop a salad for dinner. At home, I’ve stuck with 1% milk because, after years of nonfat, anything more than that tastes too creamy. Similarly, 2% Greek yogurt is rich enough for me so that’s what I stick with for now. This is what I mean with “if you’d like.” The research isn’t strong enough yet to necessitate a complete overhaul.
  • Fermented plain full fat dairy like yogurt and kefir seems to be the most beneficial of all full fat dairy products, so extra points for regularly including these foods in your diet.
  • Avoid low-fat/nonfat and full fat dairy with added sugars or sugar substitutes. I know fruited yogurt is a go-to kids snack. Parents should think of these as dessert for their kids just as they would ice cream.
  • Unfortunately, research still doesn’t favor butter. Use it sparingly and substitute olive oil whenever possible.
  • The bulk of your diet should be vegetables and fruit (at least half), whole grains, nuts and seeds, legumes and other lean proteins like fish and eggs. These foods are indisputably good for you.

One final note. Nutrition science is so young. The direction of research today indicates that full fat dairy isn’t the no-no we once thought it was but that doesn’t mean we should accept this as indisputable fact for life. Nutrition science will continue to evolve so it’s important to be open to new developments but at the same time be skeptical about where your information is coming from. As Dr. David Katz, Director of Yale University’s Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center, says:

“It is the least substantiated, most uninformed opinions about how to eat that will come at you with the greatest conviction. That’s your first clue that something is awry, because true expertise always allows for doubt.”

xo Laura

 

Summer Grilling: Spiced Butterflied Chicken with Tahini Yogurt and Mint Chimichurri

 

Summer weather has finally arrived in New York City and with that an entirely new world of possibilities has opened up. Picnics in the park, drinks at a rooftop bar, and weekend beach escapes are just a few of the many options that New Yorkers have as an outlet to beat the scorching heat. Personally, I think nothing screams summer more than a barbecue.

Grilling outside feels primal somehow. Cooking outdoors over an open flame harkens back to the very first cooking methods, and even though we have evolved, it is still one of the most delicious. I love the crisp char of grilled meat or vegetables coupled with the smoky aroma that they release into the breeze. Over time, I have learned through trial and error what works best on the grill versus what proves to be a very messy or frustrating experience. In the end, the biggest problem for me has always been striking the balance between having an enjoyable outdoor grilling experience while keeping in mind that I live New York City, a place with almost no nature and an extremely low tolerance for open flames.

Once, about a year back, I got the opportunity to take a day off from chef life and attend a backyard party in the Lower East Side. The afternoon was beautiful, the drinks were flowing and the vision of so many “artisanal” bratwursts was a sight to behold. I watched as the grill was piled with burgers, steaks and franks. The grill cracked and popped at the influx of raw ingredients and flames began to lick up over the grate. The grill was obviously overloaded, but I was hesitant to jump into chef mode. Onlookers observed as the small flames and wisps of smoke steadily grew. The mood quickly escalated into panic as a full-fledged fire emerged and began to dance around the telephone wires six feet up. All ended quickly and safely but I have been forever traumatized by my first New York City grilling experience.

 
Summer grilling at sunset

I have since dedicated much time and practice to learning the art and grace of outdoor grilling. Cooking on my own rooftop has become an amazing dinnertime ritual now that the weather allows and the sun stays up later. Rian and I frequently experiment with new glazes or rubs, so I thought I would share last night’s delicious endeavor of grilling a butterflied chicken. This was a play on a chicken tagine that we have been making for clients of late. The result wa
s a charred and flavorful crust that gave way to tender and juicy meat. We enjoyed the entire bird over a swoosh of Tahini Yogurt and topped with a drizzle of mint chimichurri. I have since decided that I never want to go back to traditional roasting.

 

For the Chicken:

1 Chicken, butterflied

1 tbs chili powder

1 tbs Cumin

3 cloves Garlic, minced

1 tbs Smoked paprika

1 tbs Ground Coriander

1 tbs olive oil

For the Chimichurri:

1/2 cup cilantro

1/2 cup mint

1 clove garlic

2 tbs parsley

1/4 cup lime juice

1/2 cup olive oil

pinch of salt

To make the chimichurri: combine all ingredients in a food processor and pulse until chopped finely. Allow to rest and develop the flavors.

To make the chicken: In a bowl, combine the spices, garlic and olive oil until a paste forms. Rub the paste under the skin of the chicken and on top until evenly coated. Sprinkle a liberal amount of salt and pepper on top and head toward the grill!

Turn the grill on medium high and cook skin side down for 15 minutes. Flip the chicken and continue to cook for an additional 30 minutes or until internal temperature reaches 160 degrees. Allow to rest for 10 minutes before carving. Serve scattered with cracked green olives, a dollop of tahini yogurt and a drizzle with chimichurri.

With Love,  Kristina