Milk is a source of essential nutrients such as protein, vitamins, and minerals. While many people opt for skim milk, believing it is healthier, recent research indicates that full fat milk may not pose health risks.

Dietary guidelines advise people to choose skim or low fat milk rather than whole milk. However, newer research calls this advice into question, suggesting that saturated fats do not cause heart disease.

This article explores three types of milk and their nutritional profiles. It also discusses the health benefits and potential risks of different kinds of cow’s milk and the research behind them.

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Grocery stores sell three main types of milk according to their fat content:

The following details nutrients per 246-gram (g) cup of different types of milk.

Whole milkLow fat milkSkim milk
Protein8.14 g8.32 g8.44 g
Fat 7.97 g2.34 g0.19 g
Carbohydrates11.5 g12.7 g12.1 g
Saturated fat4.63 g1.4 g0.12 g
Calcium306 mg310 mg325 mg
Vitamin D 2.39 mcg2.61 mcg2.71 mcg
Vitamin A 79.7 mcg143 mcg157 mcg
Iodine94.4 mcg89.1 mcg87.8 mcg

Manufacturers add vitamins A and D to milk, particularly those types that are lower in fat.

Fats in milk help the body absorb fat-soluble vitamins such as A, E, and D. Adding extra fat-soluble vitamins to milk helps account for removing the fat content and boosts these nutrients.

Some manufacturers also add omega-3 fatty acids to their milk. A 2019 study indicates that omega-3 fatty acids are naturally low in milk because cows do not convert the raw materials or supplements they feed on sufficiently.

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans advise that people choose fat-free or low fat milk instead of whole milk.

This approach is to help keep a person’s saturated fat intake to less than 10% of calories per day and reduce the risk of chronic diseases.

From the table above, the nonfat nutritional profiles across the different types of milk are similar. Because manufacturers add vitamins A and D to milk, people consuming the low or nonfat versions generally do not miss out on these nutrients.

For people who wish to maintain a moderate weight, choosing skim or low fat may be a wise choice, as these contain fewer calories.

Milk is a source of many essential nutrients, including:

  • protein, fats, and carbohydrates
  • minerals, including calcium, magnesium, zinc, potassium, phosphorous, iodine, and selenium
  • vitamins, including vitamin A, B6, B12, D, and K

A cup of skim milk contains 325 milligrams (mg) of calcium — nearly a third of the daily adult calcium requirement of 1,000 mg.

The milk proteins casein and whey have a high concentration of branched-chain amino acids, which studies suggest play an important role in muscle synthesis.

Milk also contains polyunsaturated fatty acids, which help prevent inflammation and heart disease, according to 2021 research.

One of the common concerns about milk is the saturated fat in whole milk.

The United States government currently advises people to consume low fat or skim milk instead of whole milk.

However, according to a 2018 review, this advice derives from the lipid hypothesis, which states that dietary saturated fat and cholesterol raise the risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD).

The review authors suggest more recent research has identified more complex mechanisms for CVD development that do not implicate saturated fat and dietary cholesterol.

They conclude there is a lack of evidence suggesting full fat dairy products raise CVD risk. However, this is an ongoing debate amongst experts, and to date, there is no consensus.

Additionally, an older 2010 meta-analysis of 21 studies indicated no significant evidence to suggest that dietary saturated fat increases the risk of heart disease.

Another potential risk of consuming milk is lactose intolerance. According to health experts, lactose intolerance is most common in the following groups of people:

  • Asian Americans
  • African Americans
  • Mexican Americans
  • Native Americans

People with lactose intolerance are unable to digest lactose, a sugar in milk. As a result, the condition can cause bloating, gas, or diarrhea. Individuals with lactose intolerance can consume lactose-free dairy or plant-based milk such as oat or almond milk.

Dietary guidelines advise that infants under 12 months not consume cow’s milk to replace human milk or infant formula. However, they can drink whole milk from the age of 1 year.

Milk is a nutrient-dense food that can provide a suitable source of protein, vitamins, and minerals.

Although current government advice recommends people choose skim or low fat milk, recent research indicates that whole milk does not raise the risk of heart disease.

There is ongoing controversy about the contribution of dietary saturated fats and cholesterol to cardiovascular disease.

Without conclusive evidence, a sensible approach may be to choose a type of milk according to someone’s weight, body composition goals, and current health status and risks.

People managing their weight or are at risk of chronic diseases may wish to limit their saturated fat intake and consume more whole foods and plant foods. They should also combine this approach with portion control and regular physical activity.