Dairy Dilemma

by Charles Platkin, PhD

Can dairy really help you lose weight? Michael B. Zemel, Ph.D., director of the Nutrition Institute at the University of Tennessee, (funded by the National Dairy Council) found that after reducing all participants’ daily calories by 500, those on a dairy-rich diet lost 24 pounds. Participants following a low-calcium diet lost an average of 14 and a half pounds, while those taking calcium supplements lost 19 pounds. How does this happen?

“When we cut dairy products, it sends the body a signal to make more fat,” says Zemel. How? “When your body is deprived of calcium, it begins conserving calcium. Your body is prompted to produce higher levels of the hormone calcitriol, which in turn triggers an increased production of fat cells from sugar sources,” explains Zemel.

This increase in calcitriol also makes fat cells expand. “So you’re getting bigger, fatter fat cells. And a lot of big fat cells makes for a big, fat person,” says Zemel. By getting enough calcium, your body will not be driven to create as many fat cells.

But, Dr. Zemel also notes there is a “plateau effect with calcium and weight loss.” This means you can’t keep taking in more and more calcium and expect to continue to lose more and more weight.

If you are not getting your “recommended” dose of dairy products, this could be one of several factors influencing your weight. Zemel recommends an intake of about 1000 milligrams per day (roughly three 8-ounce glasses of milk), adding that it’s better if it comes from dairy foods rather than supplements. The most important point, however, is that you can’t simply add dairy products to your diet. You will gain weight if you do. Instead, you are supposed to replace “empty” calories in your diet with dairy products in order to get the “weight loss” effect. Meaning that if you’re drinking a few cans of soda each day, you should replace them with milk.

But I wouldn’t run to the ice cream store just yet. Dairy products, including whole milk, ice cream, butter, and especially cheese are the single biggest sources of saturated fat in our diet.

“Most people think of dairy as healthful, but it’s a dangerous trap,” says Margo Wootan, D.Sc., of the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI). According to CSPI, one cup of whole milk has five grams of artery-clogging saturated fat, the same amount found in one hot dog, five strips of bacon, a Snickers candy bar, or a fast-food hamburger, and as many calories as a 12-ounce can of soda.

“Yes, dairy is rich in calcium but it has a high nutritional price tag. It’s not just high in saturated fat; it’s an especially potent, artery-clogging kind,” continues Wootan. And since heart disease is the leading cause of death for American men and women, “anything Americans can do to reduce their intake of saturated fat and cholesterol, such as cutting back on cheese and even milk, would lessen the risk of heart disease.”

Cheese gives us more saturated fat than any other food, including beef. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, the average American now eats 30 pounds of cheese a year as compared to 11 pounds in 1970.

“Only one ounce of full-fat cheese can have as much as six grams of artery-clogging fat — about a third of a day’s worth,” said Wootan. “And an ounce isn’t much — just one and a half slices of processed cheese, or a cube of cheddar, or the cheese on a slice of a large pizza.” Not to mention that two slices of American cheese contain about 160 calories.

“Cheese, even low-fat cheese, should be considered a splurge food — like cookies,” says Wootan.

CSPI recommends these simple changes:

  • At restaurants and at home, have sandwiches, burgers, salads, etc. without cheese.
  • Switch to “lite” or reduced-fat cheese (e.g., Cracker Barrel 1/3 Less Fat, Jarlsberg Lite, Cabot Light, Kraft Fat-Free Singles, or Borden Low-Fat).
  • Order your pizza cheeseless or with half the cheese (and add veggies for more flavor).
  • Don’t be fooled by “Part Skim” mozzarella which only saves you one gram of saturated fat per ounce. Instead, look for “reduced fat” or “light” mozzarella, which has half the fat of regular.

Butter is full of saturated fat (roughly seven grams) and has 100 calories for only one tablespoon. And since most of us use about three tablespoons on our morning muffins, you’re looking at another 300 calories — and about an entire day’s worth of saturated fat. If you switch to a light margarine, you save about half the calories, and lose almost all of the saturated fat. The tricky part is making sure you’re not trading for the equally unhealthy trans fat found in many margarines. So look for “trans fat free” on the package.

One of the better deals out there is non-fat yogurt. It has been touted as a “supernatural” food, containing protein and almost half your daily calcium needs at only 90 calories per six-ounce serving. But remember that it still has some calories, so don’t overindulge. Use it to replace other empty calories in your current diet. For instance, if you normally eat a bag of chips as a mid-afternoon snack, yogurt would be a great replacement. However, if you decide to combine it with your chips, you’ll gain weight.

Also, keep an eye on yogurt-covered snacks; some varieties are really candies in disguise… or worse!

  • 1 cup yogurt peanuts: 921 calories, 63g fat, 72g carbs
  • 1 cup yogurt covered raisins: 750 calories, 22g fat, 139g carbs
  • 1 cup yogurt covered pretzels: 391 calories, 14g fat, 61g carbs

The problem is that in the United States, nine out of ten women and seven out of ten men don’t meet their daily requirements for calcium. However, Wootan explains, “people would be better off getting their calcium from foods like fat-free (skim) or 1% milk, low-fat yogurt, low-fat cheese, or calcium-fortified orange juice. Plus, the recommendations for how much dairy we need are a bit overblown; most people only need about 2 servings per day.”

Whole (3.3% fat) and reduced-fat (2%) make up 75 percent of the milk we consume. Each glass of skim milk you drink instead of whole milk saves five grams of saturated fat (a quarter of a day’s worth) and about 30 calories (with comparable calcium).

Think you can’t switch? In a “blind” taste conducted by CSPI, nine out of ten said they liked the taste of either 1% or skim just as much as whole or 2%.

There are estimates that more than 50 percent of the world’s population is lactose intolerant. As an alternative to cow’s milk, try non-fat soymilk that’s been fortified with calcium, such as WestSoy, which contains 20 percent of your daily calcium requirement and only 80 calories per cup.

There are other nondairy alternatives for getting your calcium. If you’re already drinking OJ every morning, switch to calcium-fortified. Add kale (90-100mg per 1/2 cup cooked), broccoli (120mg for 2 cups, cooked), or turnip greens (100-125mg per 1/2 cup, cooked) to your salads and side dishes. And then there are always calcium supplements: see www.consumerlabs.com for the latest research.

Bottom line: You can’t simply add dairy or calcium to your diet and lose weight without cutting calories — there’s still no magic bullet.

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