Cutting Through the Noise: Organic Skim or Whole Milk?

This is the first in a series of responses to you—my friends, followers and clients—to help you cut through the noise about some of the foods and products we hear and read about every day, whether from giant corporations, fitness magazines, blogs, and that loud friend of yours who seems to know everything about dieting and loves sharing all of her opinions loudly as FACTS.

Thanks to the savvy reader Stephanie who sent our first question: “Organic milk—skim or whole? I have read too many differing opinions on which is best.”

Here’s my three part answer:

Part 1: Choosing Organic Milk

First I want to point out that Stephanie has already made the most important distinction when buying milk. She has already indicated that before choosing skim or whole milk, she already knows she’s going for the organic. I don’t live by the credo that we must buy everything organic, but when it comes to buying animal products, I believe that organic is the way to go without exception. When given the choice of buying an animal product from 

A. An animal that was dosed up with hormones, pumped with antibiotics, held in miserable, confined conditions and fed unnatural food, or

B. An animal that has only their own natural hormones, is able to roam free, eat naturally and has a relatively happy life…

Choose B every time!  Buy the milk from the happy cow!

Part 2: The Meaty Part (or should I say milky part?)

So back to skim vs whole: When I was growing up, skim or reduced fat milk were better options because they had less fat and cholesterol than whole milk, which is naturally very high in saturated fat. With fewer calories, it would seem that reduced fat is a better choice for our waistlines and our hearts. But recently, studies (like this one) link whole milk consumption to lower risk of obesity as compared to low fat dairy. It could be because whole milk is more filling and drinkers snack less. I’m a big advocate for eating foods in their natural state, and it should also be noted that in creating skim milk, many of the nutrients are removed from the milk along with the cream. That means that whole milk has more fat soluble vitamins naturally, though skim milk processors may add back the nutrients they scrape out of skim milk. There is some debate over whether they are absorbed by our bodies when added back in. Some skim milk producers also add unnatural ingredients to the milk to make it creamier, which is less than ideal.

No wonder Stepanie is confused!

So to answer the question at hand, skim or whole organic milk, we need to look at the context of the rest of the diet:

  • Are you someone who drinks a glass of milk occasionally, like once a week or less frequently?

In this case, whole milk could be a fine choice for you. 

  • What are your fitness goals?

If you’re looking to put on muscle, whole milk may be an asset: It contains about 20% whey protein (yes, the protein powder you can buy in giant canisters at GNC), which can help recovery and rebuilding of muscles after tough workouts.

  • Are you considering this for a child or adult who drinks two, three or more glasses of milk a day? In that case, there are more questions to consider:
    • What does the rest of your diet look like?
    • How much fat (saturated and otherwise) do you get in your diet?

For diets where there are many other sources of fat from meat, nuts, etc., it may be wise to choose skim or reduced fat milk, or to switch between whole and lower fat. For example, whole milk in coffee but skim with your oatmeal is a very reasonable choice.

In a very lean diet where there are few sources of fat, however, choosing organic whole milk would be reasonable ensure you are getting those fat soluble vitamins (that means vitamins that can only be absorbed with the presence of fat).

Part 3: Do We Need Cow’s Milk?

Stephanie didn’t ask me, but I would be remiss if I didn’t address an underlying question regarding whether we really need to consume milk. For many, dairy is a no-go for ethical reasons. Others avoid it because of lactose intolerance (and your friends and family thank you if that’s the case!). The dairy industry has extraordinarily deep pockets, and many of the studies we hear exhorting the benefits from dairy come directly from the horse’s—or cow’s—mouth, including the oft-cited “chocolate milk is the best post-workout snack!” study.

But the truth is that if you choose not to consume dairy products for whatever reason, there are plenty of wonderful options to get the calcium, vitamins and minerals found in dairy. Leafy greens (like kale and Swiss chard), sesame seeds and white beans are a great source of calcium. Hemp and chia contain those omega-3’s that are so prized in whole milk. And today, there are many milk-like beverages on the shelves these days that make a great substitute over cereal, in smoothies and by the glass, made from products ranging from soy to rice to coconut to hemp to quinoa milk.

So if the thought of a frosty glass of milk turns your stomach, you can live a very happy and healthy life without ever touching the stuff.

Still not sure how the skim v whole debate applies to you? Or do you have other questions? Let’s talk about it! or head over to my Facebook page and join the conversation.