As with most weight loss debates, the answer to whether or not milk can make you fat isn't a simple yes or no. On one hand, that tall glass of creamy goodness packs a lot of calories and fat – at least if you’re drinking whole milk. But milk is recommended in several reputable dietary plans including USDA's MyPlate, which allows for three servings of low-fat dairy products each day for a typical 1,800-calorie diet.
Before you contemplate the dietary consequences of drinking milk, first consider what makes the body accumulate weight. Don’t get confused by the pseudoscience claiming that calories don’t matter -- in a nut shell, weight gain really does come down to calorie intake. If a person with an average metabolism were to start eating 3,500 extra calories a week, she would probably gain about a pound weekly. That’s because it takes 3,500 calories to generate a pound of weight – weight that will typically get stored as fat.
Ah, milk -- a simple food that’s offered in an amazing array of choices. The highest fat milk is whole milk, which contains 8 grams of fat per serving. But milk varieties range down to skim milk, which is essentially fat-free. This may not sound like a big difference, but these few percentage points really matter.
You get calories from three sources – protein, carbohydrate and fat. Carbohydrate and proteins play nice – for every gram you eat, your body takes in 4 calories. Not so for fat. Every fat gram you eat gives your body 9 calories. So a gram of fat gives you more than twice the calories of a gram of protein or carbohydrate. That’s why high-fat foods pack a lot of calories. They’re way more calorie-dense. See where we’re going with this? All milk isn’t created equal. That whole milk packs a lot more calories – 150 calories per 8-ounce serving – in comparison to 80 calories per serving of skim milk.
If you made no other changes to your diet or your activity level except to add 4 cups of whole milk a day, you’d be adding 600 calories to your daily intake – enough to make you pack on more than a pound a week. So, technically yes, an increase in your milk intake could cause you to gain weight. However, let’s say you went with skim milk. You would have to add almost seven glasses a day to reach a daily calorie intake that would pack on excess pounds. And since your skim milk would be providing calories from carbohydrate and protein, your body would have to do a little more work to convert these extra calories into fat. It’s possible to get fat this way, but you’d have to be pretty dedicated – or have a major milk craving – to make it happen. After all, the USDA recommends that most American adults need only two to three servings of milk a day – a level that certainly isn’t going to provide enough calories to grow your waistline.
- USDA: Choose My Plate
- Department of Health and Human Services: Dietary Guidelines for Americans
- American Dietetic Association: Exchange Lists for Meal Planning, 2008
Christine McKnelly is a writer and registered dietitian working as her state's coordinator for the Governor's Council on Fitness. Her writing has appeared in numerous publications including the "Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture," the "Arkansas Democrat-Gazette" and "Monday Escapes" online travel magazine. In 2011, her narrative essay, "Should Have Gone To Annandale" placed among the top 10 finalists in Leap Local's international travel writing contest.