Milk will not make you lose weight, but it can help you burn fat.
Let’s define what people mean when they say they want to “lose weight.”
Many people are carrying too much fat on their body, and a sign of burning fat off would be a shrinking number on the weight scale. So to them, losing weight = the number on the scale getting smaller.
But do these people want to only lose weight?
Because when you eat less food to lose weight, most people inadvertently lose muscle too.
Most people want to look better, feel better, and be healthier. To do that, they should try and keep as much muscle as possible.
Most people get weaker and more tired when they try to “lose weight”
When most people eat less food if they aren’t careful, they will also eat less protein naturally. This means they won’t be getting enough daily protein, and they’ll get weaker.
Our bodies need lots of protein consistently. Every single day our bodies go through a process of “muscle protein breakdown,” where our bodies clean up old muscle tissue.
Plus, sometimes if someone isn’t getting enough protein in their diet, their body will break down good muscle for the amino acids in it to keep key processes running smoothly. Like making red blood cells, skin, hair and nails. (Review)
You need to be eating enough protein every day to do enough “muscle protein synthesis” to at least match the amount of “muscle protein breakdown.” This process of sending protein to the muscle offsets the loss of old muscle being broken down, so you stay the same strength.
So, when people eat less food, they eat less protein than they need, and they become weaker.
(Ironically, eating less protein makes you feel less satisfied at meals, so those focused on eating less also feel a level of hunger they didn’t know was possible.)
Trading “weight-loss” for “fat-loss”
So let’s trade out “weight-loss” which is the number on the scale. And let’s sub in “fat-loss” where the number on the scale doesn’t matter—burning fat does.
We’re no longer trying to “eat less” in general. We’re now trying to eat less energy—less calories—to burn fat.
So eating lots of protein is still on the menu. This is sometimes known as “cutting,” where you are trying to trim off your fat without losing any muscle mass.
The reason why you should eat lots of protein is that it’s incredibly difficult for our body to chemically turn protein into energy. So most protein gets used by the body, sent to the muscles, and then the rest of it gets burnt off as body heat—not stored as fat. This will keep you strong, feeling good, and feeling satisfied after meals.
So you shouldn’t restrict yourself from eating a lean protein source, lean meaning that there aren’t lots of other carbs or fat with it. Things like fish, chicken, beef, and pork with the fat trimmed off, extra-lean ground meat, etc., are all good options. And then you can even buy things like a lean protein powder like whey protein powder to help you keep your strength, even as you continue to burn more fat.
(Another way to keep your strength, is doing resistance exercise like lifting weights. It tells your body to send even more of the protein to your muscles instead of being burnt off as heat. It doesn’t need to be complicated, and you can even get started by using your body weight as resistance. Check out our free bodyweight workout here.)
How milk can help you burn fat
Getting back to milk:
- Milk contains lots of protein per serving. One glass of milk is nearly 9 grams of protein. This will help you stay strong and feeling good, even as you eat less calories.
- The top-scoring protein, in terms of quality, is milk. That means that milk has all of the essential amino acids, and it’s incredibly easy for your body to digest the protein.
- There are fat-burning compounds like CLA in the milk fat. Milk has around 400 different fatty acids that help our body work it’s best. One of these is fatty acids is called CLA—conjugated linoleic acid. CLA is a compound that helps to fight off cancer, diabetes, obesity, and fatty plaques from forming in the arteries (heart disease). It helps to prevent too much fat gain and helps to burn fat. (article) It’s so good for us that people take it as a supplement, and it’s in the fat of milk (and organic and pasture-raised milk has even more of it.)
- Milk contains dietary cholesterol and saturated fats that will help your body stay strong and energetic. These compounds, consumed in a moderate amount, will help the hormones in your body work properly so you can feel your best. (study, study)
- Milk might have unique properties that make it incredibly satisfying. When you’re satisfied, it makes overeating and junk foods less exciting, so it can help you not eat as much. Part of this is because milk is so high in protein, and eating enough protein will reduce cravings. But researchers think there may be something unique about the structure of milk protein that makes it especially satisfying.
Drinking milk made people burn fat and get stronger
In a 2012 review of 14 studies, researchers found that having dairy, like milk, didn’t cause people’s weight to go up or down. They would need to eat a calorie deficit or surplus intentionally to change that quickly.
But having dairy did change their body composition in a good way—meaning they got less fat and built more lean mass.
When having dairy, like milk, the average person lost 0.72 kg (1.5 lb) of fat and gained 0.58 kg (1.3 lb) of lean mass. They also lost 2 cm on their waist circumference because they burnt off some fat.
So even though they didn’t get weight loss, only a 0.2 lb change, you can bet that those people looked and felt better being more shaped by muscle and not their fat.
Should I drink skim milk, instead of whole fat milk, to reduce calories?
To burn fat, you’ll need to get into a calorie deficit. That means you’re burning more energy than you’re consuming.
So, theoretically, if milk, you’d want the version with less calories, skim milk, to help burn fat even faster, right?
That’s what I thought, and then I reviewed the research, which proved the opposite:
- In a 2013 review on high-fat dairy and a 2016 study, researchers found that having full-fat dairy was associated with a lower risk of becoming obese and a lower risk of getting diabetes.
- In a 2013 study, researchers studied men over 12 years and found people who ate butter and cream, and drank whole-fat milk, had less of a belly and less chance of becoming obese.
- In a 2006 study of nearly 20,000 women over nine years, the women drank whole fat milk, and high-fat cheese had a flipped-upside down relationship with weight gain. That means that the women who were having whole-fat milk and cheese didn’t get fatter over the nine years. But those who drank no milk (or they had the low-fat milk) didn’t get those same benefits and gained fat.
- In these two studies (study, study), drinking whole-fat milk was associated with a lower chance of getting metabolic syndrome.
This is the opposite of what I thought would happen because skim milk has less calories than whole milk, and has a higher protein ratio.
But it seems like when we remove all the fat, which includes those 400 fatty acids, we lose some of the amazing properties of milk.
To be clear, skim milk is still a great choice if you don’t like the idea of whole-fat. It still has plenty of protein and some of the benefits of milk. It just doesn’t help as much with burning fat, building muscle, or health as whole-fat does. (See all the health benefits of milk in our free super-guide on milk.)
Organic and pasture-raised cows will make milk even more powerful
Milk that is certified organic needs to have their cows feed on pasture at least 1/3 of the year (along with other requirements.)
In a 2012 study, researchers found:
“The output of vitamins in milk was within farm positively correlated to supply of vitamins from roughage.”
So what the cow eats impacts the quality of the milk.
In a 1999 study, researchers compared the milk of cows that ate:
- corn silage
- alfalfa hay
- going out to pasture
Researchers found that the cows that ate 100% of their diet from the pasture had 500% higher levels of CLA compared to eating a conventional diet. In one gram of milk, you’d find 22mg of CLA compared to just 3.9mg of CLA found in conventional milk.
CLA is that compound only found in the milk fat that seems to prevent fat gain over time, tells our body to burn fat, and can also help our body protect us from cancer, diabetes, obesity, and heart disease.
We also know that inflammation plays a role in gaining fat, and getting more omega-3s can help to fight inflammation. In a 2013 study, researchers found that organic milk had 62% more omega-3s than conventional milk.
While organic milk isn’t 100% pasture-raised on grass, it’s a good start. If you can get access to grass-fed or organic milk, we’d recommend getting the whole-fat version to make sure you get all those extra vitamins and compounds that eating a natural diet will get you. Grab the non-homogenized version of the whole-fat if possible, for even less processing of the fats.
Organic milk is more expensive (100% grass-fed even more so), but if you can make it work, it’ll be the better option for fat-loss, muscle gain, and for overall health.
- Most people don’t just want to lose weight and lose muscle mass at the same time—they want to burn fat
- We need to eat enough protein every single day to not become weaker, more tired, and hungrier.
- Let’s trade weight-loss for fat-loss, which allows you to eat lots of lean protein.
- has lots of protein per serving
- is the top-scoring protein in terms of quality (it has all of the essential amino acids and is the most easily digested protein)
- has lots of compounds in the fat like CLA to help prevent weight gain and even to help burn fat (among other good things)
- has dietary cholesterol and saturated fats needed for optimal hormone production
- is extremely satisfying, and could potentially have unique properties to help people feel full
- A 2012 review showed that drinking milk helped the average person get leaner and stronger and lose 2 cm of fat from their waist—all without trying.
- Whole fat milk is paradoxically better than skim milk for burning fat, building muscle, and for health in general
- Organic and pasture-raised cows will have more vitamins and higher levels of CLA and omega-3s in their milk compared to conventional milk
If you’d like to learn more about milk and how it can help you with your goals, check out our super-guide on milk.