Dairy Foods and Weight Loss? Don’t Believe the Hype

Will dairy foods help you lose weight?

You’d sure think so given the recent plethora of ads with milk-mustached celebrities and headlines like “Drink Milk… Lose Weight?”  Ads for Yoplait brand yogurt claim: “A clinical study shows it helps you burn more fat and lose weight than just cutting calories alone.”

What the ads don’t say is that all the hoopla is based on one very small published study – just 21 people – and it was conducted by a researcher, Dr. Michel Zemel of the University of Tennessee, who has a patent on the claim that dairy foods promote weight loss. Moreover, the National Dairy Council funded the study.

In the study, 11 obese adults who included three servings a day of nonfat and low-fat dairy foods as part of their low-calorie diets lost, after six months, nine more pounds than 10 other obese adults who did not include diary foods.(1)

But now a new larger study, which was expected to confirm the earlier study’s findings, led the authors to assert a diet high in dairy foods was not more effective in shedding pounds than a low-dairy diet.

Study leader Dr. Jean Harvey-Berino, professor and chairwoman of the Department of Nutrition and Food Science at the University of Vermont, took 45 obese men and women and randomly assigned them to two different groups, both consuming 1,500-calorie diets. The first group ate four dairy servings daily while the second group consumed just one. After six months, the high-dairy group lost no more weight than the low-dairy group.

Dairy foods and weight loss:  no good evidence

Dr. Harvey-Berino presented her data at the annual conference of the North American Association for the Study of Obesity. “These findings,” she stated, “suggest that a high dairy diet does not substantially improve weight loss beyond what can be achieved in a high quality behavioral intervention.”

Bottom Line: “Whether diary foods can really enhance weight loss is unclear. Any claims to this effect are based on thin evidence,” says Dr. Jay Kenney, Nutrition Research Specialist at the Pritikin Longevity Center.

“But certainly, the use of moderate amounts of nonfat dairy products as part of a weight control diet seems reasonable. Because of their low calorie density and high protein content, nonfat dairy foods appear to provide more satiety per calorie than other foods, which means they’ll help you fill up on fewer calories. And since people, especially women, tend to lose bone when they diet, it makes sense to include a moderate amount of calcium-rich foods in a weight-loss diet.”

But this does not mean that full-fat dairy products and those with added sugar like ice cream are a healthy addition to a weight-loss diet. Nor does it mean that eating large amounts of dairy foods, whether nonfat or full-fat, is a good idea. Data from a long-running study of thousands of male health professionals found that the more dairy products and calcium men consumed, the greater their likelihood of developing prostate cancer.(2)

“Yes, moderate servings (two a day) of nonfat dairy foods can help lower blood pressure and raise calcium intake, perhaps staving off bone loss,” concludes Dr. Kenney, “but don’t consume excessive servings, and don’t expect dairy foods, even nonfat ones, to be the magic bullet that melts away pounds.”

Obesity Research, 2004; 12: 582
American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 2001; 74: 549


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