New Opportunities For Dairy And Weight Loss
by Peggy Biltz and Lori Hoolihan
Dairy foods, once commonly avoided by fat- and calorie-conscious dieters, are increasingly being seen as helpful in weight-management efforts. Research during the past few years has shown consumption of milk and other dairy foods can help dieters lose weight — and fat — faster than those who consume little or no dairy.
In addition, consuming dairy may help people reduce the weight and fat regained in the post-dieting period. Adequate dairy intake may even benefit those who are not trying to lose weight by improving their body composition, reducing body fat and increasing muscle mass.
Initial observational studies showed an inverse association between dairy consumption and body weight: the higher one’s dairy intake, the lower his or her weight (within a certain range). Animal research, cellular studies and well-controlled clinical trials followed, substantiating this effect.
The postulated mechanism for the weight-loss effect is calcium and other dairy components that help speed up metabolism and improve the body’s ability to burn fat. Calcium and these other components are believed to regulate fat breakdown and minimize fat storage. When those components are not in adequate supply, the reverse occurs.
The best news to the dairy industry is that, although calcium appears to be partially responsible for this effect, the results are enhanced when that calcium comes from dairy. Other components in dairy appear to enhance the fat-burning ability of calcium.
Inordinately high intakes of dairy are not needed to take advantage of the weight/fat-loss effects. Studies show that intakes in the range of 1,000 to 1,200 milligrams of calcium, or about three cups of dairy per day, are sufficient. This amount is consistent with the recently released Dietary Guidelines and is easily achieved through food choices.
As with any research on a relatively new topic, occasionally another study will be published that does not confirm the previous results, and may even contradict them. It is important to consider the type of research study.
Observational and epidemiological studies merely show an association and are not considered as strong as randomized, controlled trials in showing an actual effect. In addition, calories are the most critical component of weight management. If someone consumes more calories than he or she burns, they will ultimately gain weight regardless of calcium/dairy intake.
Finally, there appears to be a “threshold” level of calcium intake, above which additional consumption does not confer additional benefits.
As this research expands and the message gets out that dairy can play an important role in weight management, the dairy industry is well situated. Processors can optimize their positioning through labels, health claims and other materials.
For more information and suggestions on getting the word out, visit
Peggy Biltz is chief executive officer of the Dairy Council of California. Lori Hoolihan, Ph.D., R.D., is the council’s nutrition research specialist.
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