Dairy: Diet Boost or Boomerang?

Adequate calcium intake has long been recommended for stronger bones. But lately, calcium has been scoring headlines for its possible link with weight loss. While I hope this news will be a boon to dieters, I’m afraid it could also boomerang.

Why? It panders to the fantasy that eating certain foods will make you lose weight. Wrong. Eating fewer calories than you burn will make you lose weight. And while studies suggest that high-calcium diets, especially high dairy diets, could enhance weight loss for those people already following a low-calorie regime, I’m worried that the last part of this story will be ignored by those who want to believe that ice cream, milkshakes and mozzarella are actually diet foods.

Dieters who disregard the fat and calorie content of their calcium sources may find their bodies looking more bovine than buff. So before you overdo it, make sure you understand calcium’s role in weight loss.

Here’s the skinny: A low-calcium diet increases blood levels of calcitriol, the active form of vitamin D. Calcitriol stimulates calcium influx into your fat cells, which, in turn, activates lipogenic or fat creating gene expression, thereby generating excess fat. In other words, if you’re calcium deficient, your body is more disposed to creating fat cells than when you’re getting adequate calcium.

Most of the recent research has focused on either dairy or supplementation, not fruits and vegetables, as a source of calcium. Furthermore, studies have looked at only one parameter – weight loss – without taking into account what other risk factors might be in play.

For example, we ought to be mindful of what else we might be getting from the calcium sources we choose, such as artery-clogging saturated fat and hidden sugars, as well as the dioxins found in full-fat foods, which pose a particular risk to women and girls.

The good news is that there are plenty of healthy ways to get your recommended 1,000 milligrams to 1,200 milligrams of calcium per day. For example, one cup of cooked spinach, one cup of nonfat plain yogurt, one cup of cooked black-eyed peas, a kiwi and a handful of blackberries add up to 1,046 milligrams of calcium for only 450 calories – far fewer than if you tried to meet the same requirement from full-fat dairy sources.

Keep in mind, too, that high-protein diets may cause loss of calcium, leading to osteoporosis and kidney stones. On the other hand, a diet rich in fruits and vegetables tends to inhibit urinary excretion of calcium.

So, be smart about how you incorporate calcium-rich foods into your weight-loss regime. Read labels, avoid saturated fat and added sugars, keep track of calories, and make sure your body retains the calcium you consume by including plenty of healthy, low-calorie, high-fiber fruits and vegetables. And don’t fall for high-fat foods being marketed as diet wonders. Otherwise, the only thing you’ll lose is further ground in the battle of the bulge.

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