Confused About Dairy Fat: A Primer

In today’s world of nutritional confusion, many of us believe that saturated fats must be completely avoided in order to prevent disease. If we would take a look at ourselves on a microscopic level, however, we would see a completely different picture: approximately half of each of the tiny membranes surrounding your individual cells is made of saturated fat!

Saturated fat is so important to good health that if our bodies are deprived of it in the diet, they will start to manufacture it from carbohydrates. It is still better, though, to obtain saturated fat from whole food sources such as coconut, dairy, grassfed meat, and egg yolks. Requiring your body to make saturated fat from carbohydrates requires the release of insulin to digest the carbohydrates, while fat digestion does not. Over time, excess insulin release may lead to premature aging, weight gain, and blood sugar problems such as hypoglycemia or diabetes.

An average glass of whole milk contains about 8 grams of fat, with slightly over half of that fat as saturated fat1. The term “saturated” refers to the arrangement of carbon and hydrogen in the structure of the fat — a saturated fat is “saturated” with hydrogen because it has a hydrogen molecule at every available location. Saturated fat is an important building block for brain tissue — especially in children — and it also serves as an important ingredient for making hormones. A recent study found that women who choose low-fat dairy products over full-fat dairy products are more likely to experience anovulatory infertility2, which is an inability to become pregnant due to lack of ovulation.

Dairy fat in particular contains two types of saturated fat with amazing health benefits: butyrate and CLA. Butyrate, a specific type of saturated fat found in dairy, serves as the primary food for colon cells3. This fat is made through a fermentation process by the healthy bacteria in the gut. This fat can also be found in abundance in butter and whole milk yogurt. Butyrate has been shown to play a preventive role in formation of colon cancer4. CLA (conjugated linoleic acid) is another important saturated fat found in dairy fat, with approximately five times more CLA in the milk of cows that are fed grass (their natural food) as opposed to grain. CLA is currently the focus of much research for its anti-cancer properties. In fact, a 2005 Swedish study found that “high intakes of high-fat dairy foods and CLA may reduce the risk of colorectal cancer”5. CLA also encourages the body to use calories to build muscle instead of storing them as fat which is especially important in children who are developing rapidly6,7.

With all of this said, it is important to remember that pesticides, artificial hormones, and other harmful substances tend to lodge in the fat portion of a food. So, as you begin to increase the dairy fat content of your diet please be mindful of the source of your food and choose milk from healthy, chemical-free cows.


1. USDA Food Composition Database

2. J.E. Chavarro et al., “A Prospective Study of Dairy Foods Intake and Anovulatory Infertility.” Human Reproduction 2007;22(5):1340-7.

3. E. Hijova et al., “Short Chain Fatty Acids and Colonic Health.” Bratisl Lek Listy 2007;108(8):354-8.

4. J.M. Wong et al., “Colonic Health: Fermentation and Short Chain Fatty Acids.” Journal of Clinical Gastroenterology 2006;40(3):235-43.

5. S.C. Larsson et al., “High-fat Dairy Food and Conjugated Linoleic Acid Intakes in Relation to Colorectal Cancer Incidence in the Swedish Mammography Cohort.” American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 2005;82(4):894-900.

6. B.A. Corl et al., “Conjugated Linoleic Acid Reduces Body Fat Accretion and Lipogenic Gene Expression in Neonatal Pigs Fed Low- or High-Fat Formulas.” Journal of Nutrition 2008;138(3):449-54.

7. C.S. Berkey et al., “Milk, Dairy Fat, Dietary Calcium, and Weight Gain: A Longitudinal Study of Adolescents.” Archives of Pediatric Adolescent Medicine 2005;159(6):543-50.

Check out some related posts: “Vegetarian?…” and “Give Cows a Break…”

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