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Research Suggests Calcium from the Right Sources AIDS in Weight Loss

Estimated read time: 9-10 minutes

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Mom, you were right.

All that advice about drinking milk? It seems to be true-very true.

Nutritionists are unabashedly excited about widening research that says nonfat or low-fat milk and yogurt - coupled with a low-calorie, low-fat diet - contribute to weight loss.

Add to that the benefit of calcium and it's clear why nutritionists see the research as a new tool to capture the attention of young and old who have shunned milk at a cost to their own health.

"Traditionally, I had to fight with a lot of women who said they didn't drink milk - particularly teen-age girls - because it was fattening," said Kathy Chauncey, associate professor of nutrition at Texas Tech School of Medicine in Lubbock, Texas. "But the dietary risk was much worse leaving off the dairy products, particularly because they were leaving calcium out of their diets."

The recent flurry of attention started with re-examinations of the DASH eating plan - Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension - endorsed by the National Institutes of Health.

Under the DASH plan, eating fruits and vegetables, fiber and low-fat dairy products while reducing saturated fats was proved to lower blood pressure and reduce dependence on medication.

In the late 1990s, researchers "went back (to re-examine the findings) and noticed that people on the plan who drank low-fat milk also lost weight," said Connie Diekman, chief nutritionist for Washington University.

Now, figure this: The review also found that people lost more weight in the belly than in other places on the body. That's important for people who carry fat high around the midsection - a factor linked to heart disease.

At least one study predicted that drinking more milk and eating more yogurt could decrease America's rate of obesity by 5 percent in the first year and 25 percent in five years.

But the research is still relatively new, so it's impossible to figure out how quickly this could affect individuals.

Naturally, dairy associations around the world latched on to the findings and encouraged - and paid for - more research. Nutritionists say this shouldn't cause us to dismiss findings.

"They fund research, but the researchers report what they find, not what someone wants them to find," said Chauncey. "I see nothing to be suspicious about."

Despite the dairy associations' attention, nutritionists may be even more excited by these prospects:

Consuming dietary calcium as part of a low-fat diet contributes to fat loss, and a substantial percentage of that loss is around the middle. Tell teens this and maybe low-fat and nonfat "skim" milk will be able to compete with soda.

A recent, smaller study seemed to indicate that children who drank low-fat milk were not as prone to be overweight as children who didn't drink milk. That presents a new weapon against childhood obesity and its demons.

For now, milk and yogurt appear to be the only sources of calcium that add weight loss to the mineral's other benefits. Nothing is on the radar screen yet that shows vegetable sources or supplements do the same thing.

"We think it's the whole package," said Diekman. "There's some feeling that it's the complete package of dairy that provides the benefits: protein, which enhances the absorption; phosphorus in balance; vitamin D, magnesium ..."

Nutritionists see the promise of milk as weight-loss food as a hook that will help and can't hurt.

Chauncey, author of "Low-Carb Dieting for Dummies," and Diekman, a nutrition consultant for ABC's "Good Morning America," have been making the rounds of nutrition conferences this year. The buzz about the calcium findings, they say, is the big news across the country.

There's a reason for the concern and excitement.

Milk products have been the target of a lot of bashing because of the high-fat, high-calorie content of whole milk, ice cream, whipped cream and other items. Those products undeservedly cast a shadow on healthy products such as low-fat milk and low-fat yogurt.

"We've never hated milk," said Diekman. "We didn't care for the saturated fats."

Milk is a necessity, they say, for good health.

It's clear that getting calcium at an early age helps the bones of children and young people develop properly, and the steady ingestion of calcium is essential to maintaining good skeletal structure throughout life.

But doctors are seeing more stress fractures - bones splitting because they're too fragile - among young women and men and, more disturbingly, even among children before puberty. They've blamed that on youngsters replacing milk with soft drinks and the mistaken belief that all milk is bad, so there's none in the home.

"Children are growing up with an empty `bone bank,' " Chauncey said, meaning bone density is insufficient to ensure a healthy skeleton into adulthood.

On average, people need 1,000 to 1,200 milligrams of calcium a day. Less and the bones go hungry; they become brittle and break easily. Bigger people might need more. Smaller people might need less.

Eight ounces of nonfat milk contains about 300 milligrams of calcium; calcium-fortified varieties contain more. Eight ounces of nonfat yogurt may have up to 400 milligrams of calcium. Both dairy products also have a plethora of other minerals and vitamins. Nutritionists say you shouldn't worry about getting too much calcium from drinking a lot of milk. Mineral and vitamin overdoses tend to occur in people who are taking too many supplements.

Nonfat yogurt can pack a lot of calories, depending on how it's prepared, but an 8-ounce serving can be as few as 90 calories. Nonfat milk has 80 to 100 calories in 8 ounces. In comparison, 8 ounces of whole milk has about 190 calories, with 11 grams of fat.

Only babies under 2 years old need whole milk, says Diekman. "They need that for the development of the brain and nervous system," she said. "After that, skim milk is fine."

While any dietary source of calcium - such as vegetables - will help the bones, milk and yogurt provide the amounts needed more easily. One cup of cooked spinach, for example, has about the same amount of calcium as a cup of milk, but the body doesn't absorb calcium from spinach as well.

So far, the research hasn't addressed dairy foods such as ice cream.

Researchers aren't yet certain why dairy-based calcium seems to be linked to weight loss. Published research on the Web site for the National Institutes of Health explains it this way:

Fat cells store calcium. The less calcium the body has, the more calcium the fat cells store. As that happens, the body stores more fat, also.

When the body gets more calcium, the fat cells release their calcium, and with it the fat stores for the body to burn or eliminate. The result is less fat and a healthy supply of calcium.

The speculation is that the body hoards calcium when it's in short supply, and in the same biological decision decides that it's time to store fat, too - maybe.

Chauncey recalled a study published by the Federation of American Societies of Experimental Biologists.

It read: "People who consumed a high-calcium, reduced-calorie diet with three servings of nonfat yogurt (Yoplait Light) each day lost more weight and fat compared to those on a reduced-calorie, low-calcium diet. Yogurt eaters lost an average of 22 percent more body weight, 61 percent more body fat and 81 percent more trunkal fat."

Trunkal fat is the gut; its presence increases the likelihood of heart disease.

Don't take this information to mean that you can neutralize a double cheeseburger with fries by drinking a cup of skim milk.

Even when the research about milk and weight loss is more broad-based, there's not going to be a quick fix, said Diekman. Dropping pounds still means eating less and getting more exercise.

"It's not magic," she said. "You can't put in a lot of high-fat foods and expect to lose weight. What's becoming clearer is that (dairy products) will give you an extra edge. And it will help your bones and may help your blood pressure."

Chauncey agreed.

"The recent information on dairy foods may be helpful in planning weight-loss diets for some individuals," she said. "I would not call it a solution to the obesity epidemic. It may be another tool in weight loss. We won't be able to say just eating dairy foods makes you lose weight."


Additional sources for this story:

-The National Institutes of Health Web page,

-National Heart, Lung, Blood Institute pages:

-American Dietetic Association:

-Children's Nutrition Research Center at Baylor College of Medicine:

-Journal of the American Dietetic Association, February 2004

-Dairy Council Digest, March/April 2004



Here are recommendations for using low-fat and nonfat milk and yogurt to foster good bone health and weight loss:

-Buttermilk is made with bacteria cultures and tends to be low in fat. However, it has Additional Sodium, Which Must Be Monitored By People Who Are On Salt-Restricted Diets.

-Yogurt made with fruit is fine, but keep an eye on added sugar or sweeteners.

-The milk you consume can be in cereal, in a fruit smoothie, hot or over ice.

-Concentrated canned skim milk, which can be the texture of whole milk or thicker, is fine. About 5/8 cup of concentrated skim milk is equal in calcium to one cup of regular skim milk. The texture of concentrated skim milk means it can work in cream sauces, fruit soups and other recipes.

-For people who are lactose-intolerant, lactose-free milk is acceptable. Lactose - a form of sugar that can cause stomach problems, often for people of color - doesn't appear to be part of the equation that provides improved health. But ask your doctor about experimenting.

-Fortified soy milk is a source of calcium, but there's no research on whether it can produce the same weight-loss results as milk.

-Watch the additives in frozen nonfat yogurt - flavors, coloring, sweeteners.

-There's no research available on the effectiveness of milk in bread or other food.

-No broad-based research is available on cheese and weight loss. Most cheeses have a high fat content.

-Be careful. Some companies already are trying to capitalize on the calcium craze, claiming that calcium from such things as coral residue and "natural" concentrates is producing weight loss. The research says low-fat and nonfat dairy products are the only calcium-rich foods that are definitely linked to weight loss.


(c) 2004, St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.


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