Cholesterol in Milk: Which Kind Is Good vs. Bad?

Watch Out for Saturated Fat and Cholesterol Content On Milk Labels

High blood cholesterol and being overweight can lead to health problems, especially heart disease. Dairy products are often considered high in calories and dietary cholesterol—but food and drinks containing dairy are also known to be good sources of calcium, vitamin D, and protein—which are highly beneficial and protect against osteoporosis, depression, and more. So it can be confusing to decide whether you should consume milk and dairy products.

Learn more about your different milk choices and their nutrients, including cholesterol.

A woman drinking a glass of milk
Jamie Grill Tetra Images / Getty Images

Dietary Cholesterol and Your Health

For most people, blood cholesterol levels are determined by a combination of genetics, diet, and lifestyle.

In fact, your body makes cholesterol, and cholesterol levels are largely determined by the liver, and not by dietary cholesterol. When you eat more cholesterol your liver makes less, and when you eat less cholesterol your liver makes more.

Also, exercise is known to help raise high-density lipoprotein (HDL), the good cholesterol in the body, and to help lower the low-density lipoprotein (LDL), which is the bad cholesterol.

So in general, including a reasonable amount of cholesterol in the diet is not an important factor. In fact, research suggests that for most people, a moderate intake of cow's milk does not have an adverse effect on cardiovascular health.

However, for some people, dietary cholesterol may play a more important role in determining blood cholesterol levels. This is probably influenced by genetics. If you are one of these people, paying attention to the kind of milk you consume may be more important.

What Type of Milk Is Best for Me?

So how do you decide which form of milk to use? You should consider their different nutrition profiles, suitability based on your dietary needs and/or allergy concerns, (nut allergy or milk allergy), and health benefits.

The information here can help you make your choice. If the taste is important to you, you can try a few of them all as you decide.

Some factors to consider include:

  • Whole milk, which is cow's milk from which no fat has been removed, has more calories, fat, and cholesterol than any other form of milk.
  • Periods of growth and development have specific nutritional requirements. Pregnant women, children over age 2 years, and teenagers need protein, calcium, and vitamin D. These are abundant in dairy milk.
  • People who need to limit their cholesterol intake (for example, those who are trying to lose weight or are following a heart-healthy diet), should consider fat-free cow's milk or other, nondairy, forms of milk.

Milk comes not just from cows (and, to a lesser degree, from goats), but also from plant-based sources such as soybeans, almonds, rice, and coconuts. Dairy milk from a cow is available in different varieties of fat content, and plant-based milk has varying amounts of calories and cholesterol well.

Dairy (Cow’s) Milk

You might be familiar with the varieties of dairy milk available: whole milk has 3% or more saturated fat, and you can also find 2% fat milk, 1% fat milk, and nonfat milk.

  • Whole milk: Cow's milk with none of the fat removed contains the highest amount of dietary cholesterol compared to reduced-fat milk. It has 149 calories, 24 milligrams of cholesterol, and 4.5 grams of saturated fat in an 8-ounce serving. Whole milk is high in natural proteins, vitamin D, and calcium.
  • Fat-removed dairy milk: Milk containing 1% and 2% fat is known as “reduced-fat” milk, and nonfat or fat-free milk is commonly called skim milk.
  • Lactose-free milk: This is dairy milk processed to break down lactose, a natural sugar found in milk products. If you have lactose intolerance, you may need to use this type of milk. Lactose-free milk comes in the same fat-content varieties as regular dairy milk and has a similar nutritional profile. Some types of lactose-free milk have added sugars for flavor, and this can make them higher In calories than milk that contains lactose.

Whole milk increases high-density lipoprotein (HDL) good cholesterol in the body more than skim milk does, but the effect on low-density lipoprotein (LDL) bad cholesterol and triglycerides is the same for whole milk and skim milk.

When it comes to lowering your cholesterol level, the less saturated fat you consume, the better.

Goat Milk

Goat milk is considered an alternative to cow's milk in the United States, but it's actually the most widely consumed dairy product across the globe.

Goat milk is not lactose-free, though some people find it easier to digest. It is not a low cholesterol alternative to cow's milk, however. One cup of goat milk contains 168 calories, 27 mg of cholesterol, and 7 grams of saturated fat.

Almond Milk

Made from ground almonds, almond milk is naturally lactose-free, has no saturated fat, and is low in calories compared with other milk.

While almonds are high in protein, almond milk isn’t, and it’s not a good source of calcium, either—although many brands are supplemented with calcium and vitamin D.

Note: If you’re allergic to any kind of nut, you may need to avoid drinking almond milk.

Soy Milk

Soy milk is made from soybeans. Naturally, lactose- and cholesterol-free, soy milk is a good source of protein, potassium, vitamins A, D, and B12, and (when supplemented) calcium. It’s also low in saturated fat and comparable in calories to skim milk.

Note: Some clinical research suggests that higher intakes of soy-based foods may cause fertility problems.

Rice Milk

Made from milled rice and water, rice milk is the least allergenic of all of the different types of milk, so it can be a good choice for people who are lactose intolerant or have nut allergies. It’s not a good source of calcium or vitamin D unless it’s supplemented with these nutrients.

Rice milk is very low in protein and very high in carbohydrates, which is an important consideration for people with diabetes.

Rice milk is the least likely to trigger allergies.

Coconut Milk

You may be surprised to learn that coconuts are classified as fruits, not nuts, so most people with allergies to nuts can drink coconut milk without having an allergic reaction. If you have a nut allergy, however, it’s best to check with your healthcare provider before starting to eat or drink products containing coconut.

Coconuts are rich in fiber and contain many important nutrients including vitamins C, E, B1, B3, B5, and B6, and minerals such as iron, selenium, sodium, calcium, magnesium, and phosphorus.

Coconuts also contain a lot of saturated fat, which can be harmful for some people.

Note: The fat in coconuts can contribute to the development of heart disease. If you have heart disease or risk factors for it, check with your healthcare provider about consuming coconut-containing products.

Oat Milk

Oat milk is another popular non-dairy milk substitute. Made from soaked and blended steel-cut oats, it is fat-free, cholesterol-free. and lactose-free.

Proponents of oat milk say it is creamier than other non-dairy milk substitutes. People with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity can drink oat milk, however, need to check the packaging to ensure gluten-free oats were used.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Does milk increase cholesterol?

    It depends On how your body reacts to dietary sources of cholesterol. Drinking whole milk may increase your cholesterol levels. Skim milk contains significantly less cholesterol than whole milk—7 mg versus 24 mg—and will have less of an impact on cholesterol levels.

  • Does 2% milk lower your cholesterol?

    No, 2% milk contains 20 mg of cholesterol. Though significantly less cholesterol than whole milk, 2% milk is not recommended for lowering cholesterol and may raise cholesterol levels for some people.

  • What milk is best for high cholesterol?

    The best dairy milk for people with high cholesterol is fat-free or skim milk. Plant-based milks, such as soy milk, almond milk, or oat milk, are cholesterol-free alternatives to cow's milk.

  • Is goat milk low in cholesterol?

    No, goat milk is not low in cholesterol. In fact, it has slightly more cholesterol than cow's milk.

10 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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Additional Reading

By Jennifer Moll, PharmD
Jennifer Moll, MS, PharmD, is a pharmacist actively involved in educating patients about the importance of heart disease prevention.