Dairy Products and Weight Loss. Does it Work?


If you’ve watched the ads, you’ve got the gist: “Dairy products will help you lose weight and burn fat,” is the message of the moment. This weight-loss claim is backed by two recent studies.

In one study, obese adults who followed a high-dairy diet were shown to lose more weight than those on a low-dairy, high-calcium, or low-dairy, low-calcium diet. The study involved 32 adults and was published in Obesity Research.

A second study, also conducted by Professor Zemel and published in the April 2005 issue of the International Journal of Obesity, showed that yogurt can not only accelerate weight loss, but also trim fat around the stomach. The study was conducted over 12 weeks and involved 34 obese adults divided into two groups. One group ate three six ounce servings of fat-free yogurt per day, while the other group ate only one serving. The group who consumed more yogurt lost 81 percent more stomach fat and lost an average of three pounds more weight.

What the other studies say

Sounds pretty good doesn’t it? Especially if you’re a dairy-queen or king. But don’t toss out your carrot sticks and stock your fridge full of cheese, yogurt, and chocolate milk just yet. There is another side to this story.

A longer-term study conducted over one year and published in the April 2005 American Journal of Clinical Nutrition showed that a high-dairy diet did not alter the body weight or fat mass of healthy women. A second study involving 50 overweight men and women also reached a similar conclusion.

Speaking for the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM), Nutrition Director Amy Lanou, PhD also says that Zemel’s first study is “too small to serve as a basis for weight loss recommendations.” She further points out that the study was funded from within the dairy industry. The committee believes the Dairy Council’s advertising campaign, which is based on this study, should be stopped, as the claims that extra servings of dairy products can help you lose weight are false and misleading. “Dairy ads may dupe dieters,” warns Dr. Lanou.

Dairy me! Let’s talk sense…

So what’s a girl or guy to do? If some experts say “yay” and some “nay,” who should you listen to?

Dietitian Joan Bushman MPH, RD reminds people that when it comes to weight loss it’s the calories, not the number of dairy products, that count. “To date, there is not enough evidence from studies to strongly support the claim that dairy products accelerate weight loss or fat burning. Most people should be getting around 1000 mg of calcium or more per day for good health, but when it comes to weight loss, it’s really the calories that count,” she says.

The fact is, dairy products are not calorie free! It’s important to stay aware of how many calories you are consuming, regardless of whether those calories come from burgers, carrot sticks, or milk. If you usually eat 1800 calories a day to maintain your current weight, but then add three extra glasses of milk (675 calories) to those 1800 calories, you will gain weight, not lose it.

Dietitian Allan Borushek also reminds dieters that foods often consumed with dairy products, such as breakfast cereals, can be high in sugar and calories. However, he points out that healthy dairy foods, such as lowfat yogurt can be a good replacement for less healthy snacks such as chips, cookies, and chocolate bars.

Go dairy, but not for weight loss

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend getting three or more servings of dairy products per day, but that’s not because dairy products will help you lose weight. It’s because dairy products can be good for overall health.

For example, when dairy is fortified (with vitamins A and D), it is one of the most nutrient-dense sources of calcium, which means that the calcium in dairy is highly “bioavailable” per fairly low calories. (Bioavailable means calcium is available to be absorbed into the body). The glitch is that for those who are lactose-intolerant, calcium may not be as bioavailable. If this is the case, other sources of calcium are needed. (See the table below).

Calcium helps to prevent osteoporosis, and also plays a vital role in nerve and muscle function, clotting of blood, enzyme regulation, insulin secretion and overall bone strength. Most adults need 1000 mg of calcium per day.

Plain, lowfat yogurt with no added sugar or additives is an excellent dairy choice for calcium. The bacteria in yogurt are also beneficial for digestion. For people taking antibiotics, eating some yogurt helps to replenish the friendly bacteria that the antibiotics deplete.

So, if you like eating dairy foods, go ahead and enjoy them as a healthy part of your diet, particularly for the calcium benefits. Just don’t be fooled into thinking that glass of milk will miraculously melt away flab!

Dairy and non-dairy sources of calcium

Not everyone likes to eat or can eat dairy products. Use this table to determine good sources of calcium from both dairy and non-dairy foods.

Food Calcium (mg)
Milk, 1 cup, 8 fl oz. 300
Blue, 1 oz 150
Brie, 1 oz 50
Cheddar, 1 oz 200
Cottage, 1 oz 20
Feta, 1 oz 140
Swiss, 1 oz 270
Yogurt, fruit flavored, 1 cup, 8 oz. 250
Green leafy vegetables
Broccoli, 1 cup 100
Collards, cooked, 1 cup 150
Spinach, cooked, 1/2 cup 120
Tofu (processed with calcium), average all brands, 3 oz 150
Orange juice (fortified), 8 fl. oz, average all brands 300
Nuts and seeds
Almonds, 1/2 oz 40
Cashews, 1/2 oz 5
Peanuts, raw, 1/2 oz 25
Sesame seeds, 1 Tbsp 88
Sunflower seeds, 1 oz 30
Fish and seafood
Salmon with bones (canned), 3 oz 90
Sardines with bones, 3 oz 90
Mussels/Oysters, 4 oz 95


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