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
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