Milk 101

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When it comes to dieting, you’ve been there, done that. From Atkins to Slim-Fast, you’re the diva of diet plans. And you’re still looking to slim down. The key to losing weight – and keeping it off – might very well lie in your dairy case. Surprised? After all, like many other women seeking svelte figures, you’ve probably cut dairy from your diet. But emerging research is showing that dairy may be valuable in helping people lose weight.

“Dairy isn’t a magic bullet,” says Dr. Michael B. Zemel, director of the Nutrition Institute at the University of Tennessee and author of The Calcium Key (John Wiley & Sons, 2003). “But dairy can change your body composition and affect your weight and body fat.”

Proof positive

Zemel was first aware that dairy might do more than build bone density when he began studying calcium’s effect on blood pressure. During the study, participants ate two servings of yogurt daily. As suspected, their blood pressure dropped. Surprisingly, they also shed an average of almost 11 pounds.

As it turns out, a diet high in dietary calcium speeds fat loss and helps keep you trimmer. According to Zemel, calcium suppresses a hormone called calcitriol, which promotes the accumulation of fat. Eat more calcium and you’ll have a better chance of keeping your waistline intact. Yet Zemel suspected there was more to the story, which prompted him to study dairy’s effect on weight loss. And the results were even more encouraging.

In the study, which appeared in Obesity Research, 32 obese adults followed one of three diets for 24 weeks: a control diet (with low calcium and low dairy), a high-calcium diet using supplementation, and a high-dairy diet with at least three to four servings of milk, cheese or yogurt every day. No matter what group they were in, each person ate 500 calories less than normal.

Overall, individuals who followed the high-dairy diet lost the most body weight and fat. Compared to the control group, the high-calcium group lost 26 percent more body weight, while the high-dairy eaters lost 70 percent more. High-dairy eaters also lost the most body fat, especially around the abdomen.

So what is dairy’s secret? “There are components in dairy that trigger the body to burn more fat and shift your metabolism,” Zemel says. Indeed, dairy may be twice as effective as calcium when it comes to losing weight.

How much calcium should you have?

Women between 19 and 50 years of age should get 1,000 milligrams of calcium daily; women over 50 need between 1,200 and 1,500 milligrams. If you’re relying exclusively on dairy for your calcium needs, you’ll need about three servings a day. One serving equals one cup or eight ounces of milk, one cup or eight ounces of yogurt or one and a half ounces of hard cheese.

That falls in line with how much people in Zemel’s recent study ate. “In the presence of moderate calorie restriction, eating three servings of dairy in your diet doubles the effectiveness of your efforts,” says Zemel, adding, though, that you still need to exercise regularly.

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