Is Calcium the New Magic Bullet?

New research suggests that upping your calcium intake can help you lose fat

By Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD, LD
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Expert Column

Reviewed By Kathleen Zelman

New research suggests that low-fat dairy products may be a new weapon in fighting the battle of the bulge.

How? It seems that exciting evidence from University of Tennessee shows that adequate calcium intake not only helps prevent osteoporosis but can also enhance weight loss -- meaning increased dairy calcium appears to be a key factor in preventing osteoporosis, controlling high blood pressure, potentially reducing the incidence of colon and breast cancer, and promoting weight loss. Sound too good to be true? Read on.

Dairy Products Enhance Weight Loss

A recent study suggests that dietary calcium lowers body weight by converting a portion of dietary energy to heat rather than to stored body fat. When we reduce dairy products, we send the body a signal -- make more fat, says Michael Zemel, PhD, lead researcher on the study reported in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

When your body is deprived of calcium, it conserves it, prompting you to produce higher levels of calcitriol, a hormone that triggers increased production of fat cells. Extra calcium in your diet suppresses calcitriol, leading to the breakdown of more fat, making fat cells leaner and trimmer. Zemel estimates that a high-dairy diet can boost weight loss by as much as 70%.

In his experiment, Zemel gave overweight people on a low-calorie diet about three daily servings of yogurt, totaling 1,100 milligrams of calcium, while another group received 400-500 milligrams of calcium supplements. The result: The yogurt eaters' waist size dropped more than an inch and a half and their weight dropped an average of 13 pounds compared with the supplement group, which lost six pounds or less and one quarter of an inch from their waist. The weight loss was belly fat, not only an important site for weight loss for health reasons, but a place most dieters welcome shrinkage!

Speaking of shrinkage, an important issue to remember when losing pounds is to make sure weight loss comes from fat and not muscle protein. Most diets cause dieters to lose a combination of fat, muscle, and water. The fact that participants in the Zemel study essentially lost just fat is another reason his results are intriguing.

Getting the Calcium You Need -- Even When Lactose Intolerant

And food, instead of supplements, is the best way to get your recommended calcium. Food has the advantage of not only giving you the mineral calcium but all the other nutritious substances food contains, such as phytochemicals, fiber, vitamins, and minerals.

Because calcium-rich diets are essential in treating and managing many conditions, it's imperative that dieters, especially women, maximize their intake of such foods. A few calcium sources include dark leafy greens (spinach, kale), almonds, sesame seeds, salmon, and fortified foods (orange juice).

Pumping up your calcium, boosting it to at least three servings a day, is easy. Try these:

  • enjoy a yogurt smoothie
  • eat a fresh fruit and yogurt parfait for breakfast or dessert
  • drink skim milk on ice with your meals
  • coffee lovers: make cafe au lait with strong coffee and warm skim milk
  • fill an ice cube tray with flavored milk and insert Popsicle sticks for a delicious treat
  • munch on part-skim mozzarella cheese sticks

But what if you're severely lactose intolerant and can't handle even the smallest amounts of lactose or suffer from an age-related decline in your lactose tolerance? The good news is that your body can adapt to lactose with consumption of small amounts of dairy foods eaten with other foods. Here are a few tips that could help increase your calcium intake without the painful side effects:

  • consume smaller quantities of dairy more often
  • consume dairy with food
  • eat diary with lower amounts of lactose, such as yogurt and hard cheeses
  • use lactose-free or reduced-lactose products
  • try supplemental enzymes

Calcium Recommendations

The National Academy of Science, which revised its recommendations in 2001, advocates the following calcium consumption:

Males & Females 19-50 1,000 mg/day
Females 51-70+ 1,200 mg/day
Pregnant & Lactating   1,000 mg/day

WebMD Weight Loss Clinic Plan

When filling out your WebMD Weight Loss questionnaire, be sure to indicate your ability to tolerate dairy foods so that we prescribe at least 1,000mg/day in your eating plan. Plenty of calcium in your plan allows you the wonderful opportunity to enhance your weight loss while strengthening your bones and teeth.



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