Does Full-Fat Dairy Make You Fat?
A customer approached me several years ago to inform me she couldn't buy our products anymore. She explained, "I LOVE your dairy products, but I'm gaining way too much weight on them!" Seeing her mind was already made-up, I didn't inquire further. Now I wish I had because I also know she suffered from a variety of other health challenges, and switching to locally-produced, grass-fed, raw dairy and meats was something she hoped would help her overall health.
Now as a health coach, I get the opportunity to work with people who are concerned about weight gain and/or being overweight. Our culture is obsessed with body composition, and so it's perfectly understandable when I get the chance to work with someone who's primary health goal is to lose weight.
Sadly, though, I often find it challenging to help people understand the real reasons why most people carry excess fat. The so-called "conventional wisdom" of the 1980s and 1990s fed our culture with so much misinformation about diet and fat. Saturated fats were labeled as the enemy and every product was "fat-free"! And yet, obesity levels and other chronic health issues completely went off the charts during that period, and we continue to feel the residual effects of the so-called "wise advice" we received. Ironically, going "fat-free" made us all fat and metabolically unhealthy. Yet, even staring diet and health realities in the face can make it challenging to abandon the former "advice" and beliefs that brought us as a society to this place.
Our Bodies WANT to Burn Fat!
Our human genetic blueprint is designed to burn saturated animal fats and other healthy fatty acids as our primary source of fuel! That's because we evolved by primarily consuming animals and animal products for hundreds of thousands of years.
Unfortunately, though, the Standard American Diet today is largely centered on carbohydrates--specifically high quantities of grains and sugars. However, all grains, once processed in the body, turn to glucose (aka sugar). So, over the last 60-80-ish years, humans have largely become dependent on burning SUGAR as a primary fuel source.
When our bodies rely on sugar/glucose as its main source of fuel, our pancreas is constantly active in sending insulin into the bloodstream. Insulin's primary function is to move glucose out of the bloodstream and to deliver important hormones to our cells. However, an overabundance of insulin has actually caused many people to have developed insulin resistance, which means their cells actually reject the hormones insulin tries to deliver. Hormones are signals, and when our cells do not receive the proper signals, they, along with their associated systems and organs, do not function properly.
Enter, healthy fats!
Healthy Fats are Cool!
Saturated fats are, for the most part, healthy. These healthy fats largely come from animal products (meats, eggs, dairy, etc.). There are other healthy fats that are found in non-animal foods (like avocados, coconuts, nuts & seeds, etc.). However, saturated fats can be nature's richest and most nutritious macronutrient! I say CAN because an animal's diet and health contribute to what kind of nutrients are stored in its fat! Grass-fed beef and dairy, pasture-raised pork and poultry, wild game, and fish, for instance, all have amazing levels of healthy amino acids stored in their saturated fats!
So, if our bodies are genetically designed to burn fat, then why do we get fat? Well, it all goes back to our metabolic health, which is how efficiently our bodies balance fat burning with fat storage. Sadly, 88% of Americans are metabolically unhealthy! This is leading to a host of other chronic health problems, among which obesity is one of the most common. When our bodies are insulin resistant, they are not able to burn fat. Instead, any fat we consume must be transferred to storage because the body doesn't know how to do anything else with it!
Thinking back to the customer I mentioned previously, was she gaining weight from full-fat dairy? Yes, and no. She was likely gaining weight because her metabolic health was out of balance, which would mean that any fat she consumed would be used for storage, not fuel.
Now, there are unhealthy fats! These are generally known as polyunsaturated fats (or PUFAs), and they comprise the bulk of our processed foods in the form of vegetable, canola, and seed oils. I'll save discussing PUFAs for another post, but basically, unhealthy fats do not have the composition our bodies can effectively use and process. As a result, these PUFAs contribute to insulin resistance and inflammation, which will enhance weight gain and other chronic issues even further!
So What Can We Do?
To increase our metabolic health, it is important we use a form of metabolic therapy to help retrain our bodies to utilize fat as their main fuel source. This is where there is no "one size fits all" or "magic diet pill" approach. Yes, generally diet and exercise changes are a big factor, but some people may do better on a ketogenic diet, others on a paleo diet, some perhaps on a carnivore diet, and others on a completely personalized diet plan--it really just depends on a person's individual body makeup and what kinds of issues their past lifestyle habits have created in their bodies.
BUT, there are some basics practices that most people will see HUGE changes with. Here are quick wins I teach clients or share with people seeking my advice as a health coach:
Eliminate processed oils. These include vegetable, canola, soybean, sunflower, safflower, and other seed oils. Check labels, and you will find they are in practically EVERY processed food! Instead, use olive oil, avocado oil, coconut oil, butter, or ghee, as your cooking/baking oils and fats. (Or look for minimally-processed foods made with them).
Limit grains. Yes, even whole grains still turn to glucose in your system! Instead, replace grains with more vegetables and seasonal fruits. Riced cauliflower, for instance, is a great replacement for rice. Almond or cassava flour are great substitutes for wheat flour. There are LOTS of alternative options! Then, for the grains you do consume, see that they are whole, unprocessed, and possibly even fermented or sprouted. Ancient varieties are good options, if available. But by just cutting out the processed foods with bad oils, you'll also largely knock out processed foods with unhealthy flours and overly-processed grains. Win-Win! (NOTE, many people actually find that eliminating grains all together is best for their personal health and energy levels).
Limit sugars. (And feel free to just eliminate them!) Again, eliminating processed foods will knock out a lot of the sugar you may already consume. Triple win!! But the goal, here, though, isn't just to look for "organic sugar" or other processed sweeteners as replacements. Instead, the idea is to remove foods that spike insulin levels in your bloodstream. Even some "natural" sweeteners will spike the blood sugar levels. So be mindful of what, and how much, you're using in your foods.
Increase healthy saturated fat consumption. The best choice is fats from grass-fed or pasture-raised animals. But if budgets or accessibility make this difficult, then seek out the next-best options, which may be organic, just not fully grass-fed. You will STILL be able to teach your body to use these yummy, nutrient-dense fats as your primary source of fuel!
So, to wrap up a very complex topic more simply: When our bodies are fat-burning machines, full-fat dairy is not just healthy, it's the ONLY way to consume dairy! (Provided, of course, your body handles dairy well). Your body will thank you for all of the amazing Omega-3 fatty acids and rich vitamin and mineral content these healthy fats will provide you!
For more information, here are two of my favorite books to check out about making healthy fats the centerpiece of your diet:
"Fat for Fuel" by Dr. Joseph Mercola
"Primal Blueprint" by Mark Sisson
Joseph Shumway is a certified Primal Health Coach focusing on ancestral health and wellness.