Whole Fat vs. Low Fat – The Current Discussion

Most dentists agree that dairy products as part of your daily diet offer good protection against the development of dental caries, commonly known as tooth decay, or simply, cavities. Milk, yogurt and cheese all contain casein, a protein that helps calcium and phosphorous strengthen and protect the enamel of your teeth, effectively preventing cavities. In recent years, there has been a growing debate around the relative benefits of whole fat dairy and low-fat or reduced-fat versions of these same products. How does this debate ultimately impact the health of our teeth? 

Blame it on the Fat

In March 2014, the results of a big study were published in the journal of the American College of Physicians called Annals of Internal Medicine. This study concluded that “saturated fat does not cause heart disease.”How could this be? The wisdom that fat is always bad has been guiding global thought for decades. But a look at clinical evidence shows that despite what has been promoted in the past, facts do not support a continuing adherence to this belief. An analysis of American statistics in this regard shows a tremendous turnaround in our knowledge about the impact of saturated fat on human health.

It all started during the 1950s, when a persuasive American scientist named Ancel Benjamin Keys rose to prominence with his belief that saturated fats cause a rise in cholesterol levels, which in turn causes heart attacks. Thus began a long era of demonizing butter, cheese and red meat. Although it was later discovered that his research methods were faulty, Keys’s results were promoted and ultimately institutionalized by the American Heart Association, where by 1961 he wielded considerable influence as a member of the nutrition committee. Thus began a long era where vegetable oils were touted over animal fats, and whole grain food products earned the “heart healthy” label.

By the 1970s, even though studies that called into question many of these assumptions were emerging, these beliefs had become so entrenched in public perception, that it appeared to be too late to chart a new course. Along with the demonization of meats and cheese came a reliance on vegetable-based fats such as Crisco, and later processed oils manufactured from corn and soybeans. Again. An entire industry grew around these trends, further increasing the difficulty of challenging these beliefs.

Jump to the Present

Not only have rates of heart disease not decreased, but they have actually increased in unexpected ways. It seemed that with the decrease in consumption of animal fats, people began eating more carbohydrates and sugars, as well as using more processed vegetable oils. Concurrently, the population has experienced a rise in the rate of obesity and diabetes, and the rate of heart disease in women has grown to meet that of men, thanks to the high popularity of this kind of diet among women.

In 2007, The World Health Organization (WHO) estimated that over 67% of Australian adults were overweight, and over 20% were obese. The country claims the third highest prevalence of overweight adults in the English speaking world, behind the United States (the highest) and New Zealand. Obesity has been cited as a risk factor for type 2 diabetes, (which can also cause tooth and gum problems), as well as heart disease, strokes, cancer and gallstones

Last year’s paper, “Three Daily Servings of Reduced-Fat Milk: An Evidence-Based Recommendation?” published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), also refuted the wisdom of using low-fat dairy products. The evidence is now in. The experiment has been a failure. Increased carbohydrate consumption has played havoc with blood glucose levels causing a rising obesity and diabetes epidemic. Processed vegetable oils have been linked with deadly cancers and other organ problems. But still the conversation continues.

Continuing Discussion

Currently, there is overwhelming evidence against widespread substitution of low-fat dairy products for their full fat originals. We have seen that to make up for the reduced calories in these low-fat dairy products, many people have turned to increasing their carbohydrates. In addition, some of these products or sweetened, or contain carbohydrate based additives that end up converting to sugar. This has caused a dangerous rise in blood sugar levels, with all of the attendant health consequences.

Still, some practitioners take a more nuanced approach. Kate DiPrima, spokeswoman for the Dietitians Association of Australia, is concerned about total fat intake across the entire diet, and not just milk. American dietitian, Maryann Tomovic Jacobson suggests using low-fat milk as a tool to leave room for other, healthier fats in the diet such as walnuts.

The trend towards low-fat dairy products is the result of decades of habitual eating supported by official policy that will be hard to break. It seems well past time to look realistically at the devastating consequences on our overall health by the wholesale adoption of these policies, and make some sensible choices moving forward. The health of our bodies as well as the health of our teeth depends on it.