Weight Loss: The Calcium Connection
Chester J. Zelasko, Ph.D. | July 2004

The solution to weight loss in the 21st century continues to be elusive. For the most part, calories are abundant and work is sedentary. That’s the opposite of the solution: eat less, exercise more. Recent research has discovered that the solution may be more than just calories. It may be that what you eat is just as important as how much you eat.

Calcium and Weight Loss
The role that calcium may play in weight loss began with observational studies (1). Researchers observed that persons placed on diets that contained higher amounts of calcium weighed less and had lower blood pressures as well. Study after study confirmed an inverse relationship between dietary calcium intake and body weight. Still, this didn’t ring any bells for years until a group of researchers discovered the role of intracellular calcium and its effect on regulating the metabolism of fat cells. What that means is that the amount of calcium inside cells regulates whether fat will be made, used, or stored. At least that’s what it means in test tubes studies. While this hasn’t been replicated in any meaningful way in animals, it did provide enough evidence to examine the role calcium may play in weight loss.

Animal studies confirmed that obese animals given high calcium diets lost more weight—specifically body fat—when fed the same number of calories. Interestingly, when re-fed as much food as they could eat, the high calcium group regained less body fat than the lower calcium group.

Human trials have confirmed the role that dietary calcium has in weight loss. For example, in a recent clinical trial, subjects were maintained on a 500 calorie per day deficit diet. One group sustained 400-500 mg/day calcium intake while the other group maintained an 1100 mg/day calcium intake. Both groups lost weight but the high calcium group lost more fat especially in the trunk (abdominal) area. While more research is necessary, calcium does seem to play an important role in losing weight and body fat (2).

The Source of Calcium
The evidence suggests that calcium from foods—specifically dairy products—is much more effective in weight loss than calcium from supplements. While the research is still preliminary, people who obtained their calcium from dairy products like fat-free milk, low-fat yogurt, and low-fat cheese lost more body fat than those who used calcium from supplements.

There are a couple of reasons why dairy products can be more effective than supplemental calcium alone (1). Dairy products often contain vitamin D which helps the absorption and utilization of calcium. More calcium may get into cells where than can exhibit their lipolytic effect. Dairy products also contain Branched Chain Amino Acids (BCAA) such as leucine, isoleucine and valine. BCAA assist in regulating muscle protein synthesis. The more BCAA available during weight loss efforts may limit the breakdown of muscle for energy causing fat to be used as a fuel as sparing protein.

The reason for dairy’s apparent advantage over dietary calcium in weight loss may be about balance. It’s not a single nutrient like calcium, BCAA, or vitamin D that makes the difference. Rather, it’s taking them altogether in whole foods that stimulates the positive effect on body weight. Future research will probably give us the answers.

What does this mean for you?
Adding dietary calcium to your meal plan may help you lose the weight you want to lose. However, remember that you should substitute dairy products into your meal plan, not add them on top of your current meal plan. Calories still count but you may get more effective results if you switch dairy foods into your meal plan.

It goes without question that if you’re lactose intolerant, adding dairy can be a challenge. The only option is you want to pursue the dairy-calcium option is to use a digestive enzyme that contains lactase to break down the milk sugars.

Can adding calcium into the diet really have a positive effect on the weight of the nation? One scientist speculates that as many as 60-80% of the 200 million overweight men, women and children could reduce their body weight by normalizing their calcium intake (3). While not the only solution to the obesity epidemic, it makes one consider the question you see in the milk ads: Got Milk?

References:
  1. Zemel, MB. Role of Calcium and Dairy Products in Energy Partitioning and Weight Management. Am J Clin Nutr 2004; 79(suppl):907S–12S.
  2. Teegarden, D. Calcium Intake and Reduction in Weight or Fat Mass. J. Nutr. 133: 249S–251S, 2003.
  3. Heaney, RP. Normalizing Calcium Intake: Projected Population Effects for Body Weight. J. Nutr. 2003; 133:268S-270S.
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