Research Review by Dr. Shawn Thistle©



Role of Calcium & Dairy Products in Weight-loss Strategies:

Nutrition plays an integral role in weight loss - an understatement to say the least. There are many common recommendations made to those trying to lose weight including: limiting intake of high-fat meat products, increasing fruit and vegetable intake and so on. One other common recommendation is to limit the intake of high-fat dairy products (meaning those over 4% milk fat in general, although I would extend this recommendation to those products over 2% milk fat).

Unfortunately, this leads some people to avoid dairy products all together. To be clear, I am not disagreeing with the recommendation to avoid higher fat dairy products, as it makes nutritional and biochemical sense. What I do hope this brief article will impart to the reader is that the consumption of dairy products can be part of a balanced approach to weight-loss nutrition.

For most people, milk and other dairy products form a substantial part of the diet in early childhood. From that point on, dairy intake tends to drop dramatically in the early teens, at a time when children, particularly females, could benefit the most from the high, calcium content.

Further, most adults I know, upon questioning, consider cream in their coffee or processed cheese on their burger to constitute a normal dairy intake. Those adults trying to lose weight may want to reconsider this dietary practice.

Although the link between dairy products and weight loss is not new, only recently has it enjoyed renewed attention in the nutrition field.

There is growing scientific evidence to support the relationship between increased calcium intake and reduction in body weight, specifically fat mass. I will present a brief synopsis of relevant findings to date. The interested reader is directed to the references listed below. This phenomenon was first observed in rats years ago, but has now been demonstrated (sometimes accidentally) in a wide age range of human subjects of both genders and many races.

In various studies of weight loss and obesity, it has been shown that people in the highest quartile of calcium intake had the lowest odds ratio of being in the highest body fat quartile (i.e. there seems to be an inverse relationship between calcium intake and body fat).

Although energy balance (energy in vs. energy out) is the most critical factor in weight regulation, this evidence suggests that calcium metabolism and perhaps additional components of dairy products may contribute to shifting the energy balance, thus playing a role in weight regulation.

The exact mechanism of this effect is yet to be elucidated, but the results thus far seem promising. This relationship between calcium intake and body weight has important clinical relevance since, as mentioned above; many people trying to lose weight often avoid dairy products. This may be counter-productive, as calcium from dairy sources has been shown to exert a significantly greater anti-obesity effect than supplemental sources.

Many people who choose to supplement their diet with calcium rather than obtaining it from dairy sources may be forgoing this potential benefit (not to mention missing out on the other benefits of dairy intake).

The results of this line of research has led some to suggest that if everyone increased their daily intake of calcium to the recommended Dietary Reference Intakes (DRI), the incidence of obesity could be greatly reduced.

From a practical standpoint, if you are trying to lose weight, talk to your health care professional about your diet and specifically about how low-fat dairy foods can become a part of your weight-loss strategy.

Almonds 15 50
Beans - green - cooked 1/2 cup 35
Beans - kidney - cooked 1/2 cup 30
Bread -white 1 slice 15
Bread - wholegrain 1 slice 15
Broccoli - cooked 1 cup (100g) 30
Cheese - cheddar 35g cube 275
Cheese - low fat cottage 100g 80
Cheese - reduced fat Edam 35g cube 360
Milk -modified low fat 1 cup (250ml) 400
Milk - modified reduced fat 1 cup (250ml) 345
Milk - regular 1 cup (250ml) 285
Milk - skim 1 cup (250ml) 310
Salmon - canned (including bones) 1/2 cup (50g) 230
Sardines - canned (including bones) 1/2 cup (50g) 190
Spinach - cooked 1 cup (340g) 170
Yogurt - low fat 1 tub (200g) 420
Yogurt - natural 1 tub (200g) 340
Yogurt - reduced fat fruit 1 tub (200g) 320


  1. Barr SI. Increased dairy product or calcium intake: Is body weight or composition affected in humans? Journal of Nutrition 2003; 133: 245S-248S.
  2. Barr SI, McCarron DA, Heany RP, Dawson-Hughes B, Berga SL, Stern JS, and Oparil S. Effects of increased consumption of fluid milk on energy and nutrient intake, body weight, and cardiovascular risk factors in health older adults. Journal of the American Dietetic Association 2000; 100(7): 810-817.
  3. Davies KM, Heaney RP, Recker RR, Lappe JM, Barger-Lux MJ, Rafferty K, and Hinders S. Calcium intake and body weight. Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism 2000; 85(12): 4635-4638.
  4. Lin YC, Lyle RM, McCabe LD, McCabe GP, Weaver CM, and Teegarden D. Dairy calcium is related to changes in body composition during a two-year exercise intervention in young women. Journal of the American College of Nutrition 2000; 19(6): 754-760.
  5. Zemel MB. Regulation of adiposity and obesity risk by dietary calcium: mechanisms and implications. Journal of the American College of Nutrition 2002; 21(2): 146S-151S.
  6. Zemel MB. Mechanisms of dairy modulation of adiposity. Journal of Nutrition 2003; 133(1): 252S-256S.
National Dairy Council