Should I Buy Low-Fat or Regular Yoghurt?
The title of this blog may seem strange to some but trust me, this is a question that a LOT of people have because, honestly, it’s something that has been talked about frequently in a number of different contexts. Honestly, it’s not surprising that people are confused considering all of the seemingly mutually exclusive and contradictory information available, and so in this short blog, I’m going to outline what you need to know when you’re walking down the dairy aisle.
First off, it’s important to point out that there is NO SUCH THING AS A PERFECT FOOD. Indeed, there is not even such a thing as good food or bad food. Nothing on the supermarket shelf is going to make you immortal, allow you to fly, or create invulnerability to illness by itself. Sure, a completely healthy lifestyle including a proper diet can work towards helping you live longer and avoid illness (still no flight I’m afraid) but what works is a culmination of food and general lifestyle choices, not one of the choices you make on its own. It’s not the carrot you eat on Tuesday that helps support a healthy immune system, it’s all of the fruits, vegetables and sleep you consume across the course of the year that does it.
Similarly, despite what some bullshit merchants on the internet like to screech about, nothing on the supermarket shelf is going to kill you. Even trans fats, the thing that literally everyone agrees are something that’s best off being left out of your diet, won’t cause physical harm if consumed on occasion – just maybe not every day in large amounts.
Ultimately every single individual food choice you make is neutral for your health until it becomes representative of a broader eating pattern. Should you eat white bread or wholemeal? Well, wholemeal has more nutrients, it has more fibre, and it’s a little more filling, but if you’re eating a well-balanced, varied, wholefood based diet that provides all of the nutrients and fibre you need anyway then all of a sudden that doesn’t matter and so you should choose whichever you prefer.
Should you eat an apple or a magnum right now? Well, what else have you eaten this week and what will you eat next week? Context and the broader diet/lifestyle matter A LOT here because unless something is literal poison or water from the fountain of youth, foods don’t have grand acute effects like people like to pretend they do.
And the same is true of yoghurt – if you eat a diet that is generally geared towards making you feel good, helping you achieve or maintain a bodyweight you’re happy with, and fulfilling your taste buds then the specific yoghurt you eat as part of that honestly doesn’t matter. As such my advice is to choose the one that appeals to you and worry more about the rest of your diet and lifestyle than that one decision.
That’s probably not the answer that most are looking for, though, and when people are trying to make better choices overall they may WANT to choose the generally healthier thing because that’s a good habit to get in to and I want to encourage that, so let’s get into the specifics of what IS the healthier thing here.
Yoghurt is a fermented milk product. You take the milk and add a bacterial culture which ferments the lactose (milk sugar) present – this fermentation acts upon the proteins within the milk to give yoghurt it’s typical texture and taste. This is the process for creating plain, natural yoghurt but from here we have some variations:
- Sometimes this is then strained to create a thicker, creamier product like Greek yoghurt.
- Sometimes the milk used is semi-skimmed or skimmed, to reduce fat and calories.
- Sometimes the two are combined, creating fat-free Greek yoghurt or Skyr (purists will point out Skyr is made slightly differently and technically isn’t a yoghurt but a cheese, but it’s a fermented dairy product eaten like yoghurt so I’m keeping it in)
- Sometimes flavourings are added, including fruit, honey, sugar, and artificial sweeteners
- Sometimes additional probiotics (good bacteria) are added
Overall there’s a ton of different variations but to loop back to the initial question – which should you pick!?
Part of the problem with answering that is that there are a few different reasons why you would choose one yoghurt over another, and because of that there are a number of different angles from which we could attack the question. A few examples are:
- For the protein content
- For the gut bacteria
- For a lower-calorie snack
- For a primary part of a meal
- Because you just like yoghurts
This is a problem because the answer to all of those bullet points may be different and because of that, the only honest answer I can give is to read the label and find out which option best suits your goals and broader diet. Let me explain…
Greek Yoghurt and Skyr will have more protein than will natural yoghurt because they are strained to remove a bunch of stuff that isn’t protein, concentrating the muscle-building goodness. These are thick, though, and if you don’t need a lot of protein and are looking to just have a bit of yoghurt and granola natural yoghurt may be better because the texture allows for better pouring.
Some yoghurts have a higher probiotic content, and this will be stated on the label (though no good evidence currently exists to support them having a genuine benefit to your health), and of course, tasty yoghurts will be whatever you define them as and that will appear on the label, too. Reading the label and comparing what you read to the goals that you have will get you a long way….
But what about fat?
Well – dairy fat, despite what some may have led you to believe, is not associated with an increased risk of any negative health outcome (1) and so there is no health-based reason for eschewing the creamier, arguably tastier versions of these products. None at all. Zero. Zip.
The reason you would opt for a lower-fat yoghurt is PURELY for a reduction in calorie content – for example, full-fat Greek Yoghurt contains 93kcal per 100g vs 53kcal for the fat-free version with the micronutrients therein being relatively unchanged for practical purposes. This calorie difference may or may not be relevant to you based on the rest of your dietary choices. There is no global answer that applies to everyone, you really need to choose based on your personal situation.
At the same time, it is simply not true that low fat or fat-free dairy NECESSARILY has things added to it to make it more palatable, which is something often argued by the “ALWAYS GO FOR THE HIGH FAT VERSION” crowd. Sometimes a low-fat dairy product will have added sugar or thickeners, sometimes it will simply be a yoghurt that was made with semi or skimmed milk – again the only way to know is to read the label.
Sugar isn’t bad, of course (as I said, no food is), but you can put a lot of it into a yoghurt and if you have a product with the fat removed that then has a lot of calories from sugar added to it, you’ve defeated the purpose of removing the fat in the first place! This typically makes fat free or low-fat yoghurt with a lot of sugar added less than ideal choices. This isn’t most fat-free yoghurts, but it’s certainly some of them – when in doubt, read the label!
As a final point – it’s commonly stated that we should opt for higher fat dairy products because they are less processed, but honestly, that’s a completely nebulous term that tells you nothing about the health value of a product. Know what’s really highly processed relative to whole yoghurt? Fish oil, olive oil, and cooked lentils, three of the things that most people would agree are extremely supportive of overall health. Opting for minimally processed things is a good rule of thumb, but it’s not a hard and fast rule.
And low-fat yoghurt is barely processed anyway. Let your milk settle, skim some fat off, then make yoghurt out of it – it’s hardly a complex science experiment.
That’s a lot of info, so to keep things simple, here’s a step by step guide to choosing your next yoghurt:
Are you buying your favourite snack? If yes just buy whatever the hell you want and ensure the rest of your diet is predominantly whole, unprocessed foods including a lot of plants, plenty of lean proteins and a ton of variety.
Is this going to be the main part of a meal (perhaps yoghurt with fruit for breakfast) or is it a side dish or snack? If it is a meal, probably choose the higher fat version as the fat will make this more filling.
OK, if this is a side dish or snack, does it need to be lower in calories to allow for other food elsewhere today/in this meal? If no, go higher fat. If yes, choose a lower fat option.
It really is that simple, there is no health reason to avoid the fat, and low-fat yoghurts aren’t ALL highly processed, overly sweet junk and even if they are, as a small part of an overall healthy diet?
Trust me, you’ll be fine!
1 – Hirahatake, K., Bruno, R., Bolling, B., Blesso, C., Alexander, L. and Adams, S. (2019). Dairy Foods and Dairy Fats: New Perspectives on Pathways Implicated in Cardiometabolic Health. Advances in Nutrition.