The Skinny on Calcium

Want to lose weight? It's cheesy

MONDAY, Oct. 15, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- Got fat? Get milk.

That's the advice from scientists who bolster the view that a high-calcium diet is just as important as calorie counting and exercise if you want to lose weight.

Three separate studies related to calcium and body fat were presented recently at the annual meeting of the American College of Nutrition in Orlando, Fla.

Dr. Robert P. Heaney, professor of medicine at Creighton University in Omaha, Neb., looked at body weight in almost 800 young and middle-age women and found that those with the lowest calcium intake had the highest body fat.

A woman was twice as likely to be fat if she were in the half of the group that had the lowest calcium intake, he says. "The bottom line is, for people who are trying to lose weight or are concerned about weight, the last thing in the world they want to do is get rid of high-calcium foods."

That supports another presentation by researchers from the University of Utah, who followed 50 children ages 4 to 8 over a period of six months. The kids whose diets were supplemented with more calcium and protein from dairy products gained less body fat than children in a control group, the American College of Nutrition reported.

The reason appears to be that calcium speeds up fat loss when you're dieting, and cutting calcium during a diet slows it down.

That's what word from Dr. Michael Zemel, director of the Nutrition Institute at the University of Tennessee, who presented a study on how the process works.

Because calcium is so important to the body's overall function, he says, when the body doesn't have enough calcium, its defense mechanisms kick in as protection. Part of that defense is a hormonal response that starts the process of making fat and slows the processes that break down fat.

"You're making more fat and breaking down less fat," Zemel explains, "so you get bigger, fatter fat cells. When we increase dietary calcium, we short-circuit this system."

In his study, the best results came from dairy products, as opposed to other foods that naturally contain calcium (for instance, broccoli), calcium-fortified products or supplements. That led Zemel to believe that there's more to the equation than just the nutrient itself.

"Every time we try to simulate the effect of food by singling out a substance, it's less effective," he says. "In milk and dairy, we haven't firmed up the other biological components. It's possible the whole is greater than the parts."

Unfortunately, none of the research found that you can melt pounds by eating a quart of fudge ripple every day. Calories do count, Zemel says, and there's no substitute for exercise. But once you address those issues, a high intake of dietary calcium serves as a switch to tell your body to burn excess fat more efficiently.

The optimum fat-burning range is 1,200 to 1,600 milligrams of calcium per day, Zemel says. There's no added benefit in going above that level. A cup of milk or yogurt or an ounce of cheese is considered a serving, and each of those provides about 300 milligrams of calcium. Most people need between two to three servings each day; growing children and teens, as well as pregnant and nursing women, should get three to four servings a day.

Too much calcium is actually bad for you, but there are no recorded cases of calcium poisoning from food. Too little calcium in the diet has been linked to a host of serious health problems, including hypertension, colon cancer and osteoporosis. Young women are at particularly high risk, Zemel says, because they think dairy foods are fattening and stop eating them.

"We're telling them it will help them lose fat," he says. "We know calcium-rich diets are good for a variety of chronic disease, but if you're 16 years old, you don't give a damn about those. You care about your weight, though. If it gets them to do something that's good for them for a number of reasons, that's fine with me."

What To Do

For some easy ways to boost calcium intake in your food, check out the American Dietetic Association Web site. Plus, here are some alternative food sources for calcium for those who are lactose-intolerant.

You can also view the American Academy of Pediatrics' calcium intake recommendations.

SOURCES: Interviews with Michael Zemel, M.D., professor of medicine and director, the Nutrition Institute, University of Tennessee; Robert Heaney, M.D., professor of medicine, Creighton University, Omaha, Neb.; Oct. 6 presentation at the American College of Nutrition in Orlando, Fla.
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