The Wall Street Journal recently published an article about the resurgence of full fat dairy products, which have been increasingly trendy in the past couple of years. I think the trends stem in part from the hype on some recent studies coming out showing lower incidence of certain chronic diseases with consumption of full fat dairy vs. non fat, but more relevant to probably most people reading this is the relationship between full fat dairy intake, fertility and female reproductive hormones in general. And adding to that, the impact this relationship could have on some of the effects of disordered eating and chronic under-fueling in athletes. There is also the very simple aspect of taste and the satisfaction factor, but first…
Let’s look at the general data
A couple of years ago a study came out associating consumption of full fat dairy products with lower incidence of type 2 diabetes, and others associating full fat dairy intake with lower incidence of central adiposity and cardiometabolic risk. While these studies do not prove cause and effect, they do add to a growing body of evidence that dairy fat might not be as detrimental to health as was one believed.
full fat yogurt bowl with all the fruits & granola!
There are probably a few “whys” here. The more complex hypothesis revolves around the metabolic effect of specific fatty acids found primarily in dairy and their role in things like muscle glucose uptake. The less complex one is more focused on the satisfaction factor and overall satiety after meals, in which fat is so extremely helpful. Were the subjects in the study who were regularly eating full fat dairy eating less overall because they were more satiated after their meals? That’s possible too. I know for me and a lot of people I work with, having a container of nonfat flavored yogurt doesn’t do much in the satisfaction department and often can be a snack that leads to another snack (and maybe another snack) until the satisfaction factor is met. On the other hand, with some whole milk yogurt or cheese, and it doesn’t take much to feel satiated. Without getting into a debate on sugar content (that’s probably a whole different post) the main difference here is fat.
Dairy and lady hormones
There is a TON of research on dairy and women’s health. I’m pretty well-versed on the data involving breast cancer due to my full time job – in short, despite what “What the Health” says, a few servings of dairy per day is absolutely fine in women with breast cancer – but I’ve also been delving into the relationship between dairy and female reproductive hormones too. This is due in large part because of the disruptive effect disordered eating can have on the female reproductive system and the strategies I use to help others overcome this. In other words, full fat dairy can be a tool in the toolbox to help those with disordered eating and resulting amenorrhea regain regular menstruation. Here’s a bit on how…
the best vehicle for cheese, always
Backing up a bit
Amenorrhea, or specifically functional hypothalamic amenorrhea (FHA) in this case, is the absence of a menstrual period caused by a chronic energy deficiency. This is either due to insufficient caloric intake, excessive energy expenditure or both. Stress can also cause FHA, and often times it’s a combination of all of the above. Here is a great study on just how much of an impact FHA can have on our health, both in the short and long term, and like I mentioned in my last post, not having a period is not normal. It’s the body’s way of telling us something is wrong and to fix it, please. There are a lot of factors that go into healing ones relationship with food and exercise, not just to reverse FHA and obtain better physical health, but also to live more of a happy, balanced life. That’s probably a whole series of posts and I don’t want to belittle the complexity of it all, but my purpose today is to focus on one small component that could be helpful (and most definitely delicious) in talking about full fat dairy.
So let’s talk data. A prospective cohort study from The Nurses Health Study II found that 1-2 servings of full fat dairy per day, including whole milk, 4% (or full fat) yogurt and cottage cheese seemed to be protective against infertility by supporting ovulation. Other studies have also had similar findings in that infertility was less likely in those who consumed full fat dairy regularly. Another study found high fat dairy intake was associated with an increase in luteinizing hormone (LH) concentrations, in which levels are typically low in women with FHA. Data like this makes a good case for recommending full fat dairy, or switching from non fat to full fat dairy, in women with FHA. The bummer is that to date*, there really isn’t much research directly looking at a possible benefit of full fat dairy products in women with FHA. So for now I’m relying on this possible effect on fertility and hormones in general, as these are both key factors with FHA.
Something else we can’t overlook is the simple fact that full fat dairy is more calorically dense than non fat dairy, and can be so helpful in those with chronically insufficient energy intake and excessive energy expenditure. While oftentimes these two factors are intentional due to disordered eating, I’ve also seen endurance athletes without disordered eating have difficulty keeping up nutritionally with hard training. This can also cause an energy imbalance and resulting loss of a menstrual period, and just like I mentioned above, switching from non fat dairy to full fat can help bridge this energy gap.
And we can’t forget…
There’s also one thing the WSJ said that, although less scientific, makes a whole lot of sense. Full fat dairy products taste better! After a long stretch of a lower fat diet craze and “I don’t care how this tastes because it’s ‘healthy'” mindset, people are starting to change. Not only to do we know how important fat is in the diet, but we care more about how our foods taste. Adding to that, I also think the “satisfaction” factor after meals is something people are thinking about a bit more as intuitive and mindful eating become more popular. Food for thought, right?
*if you know of any research on FHA and full fat dairy specifically, please let me know!
**all thoughts here are my own and meant for educational purposes only. Probably about eleven people read this blog, so please don’t even suggest I’m being paid by any industry or company to write this.