Why are two out of three Americans overweight? Certainly we’re eating more and exercising less, but there is another cause – a lack of the mineral calcium in our diets.
Simply by getting adequate calcium in our diets, as many as four out of five of us could lose the extra weight.
How Much Calcium?
If you are among the Americans getting the lowest average level of calcium – 255 mg per day – you are 84% more likely to be overweight than if you are among those getting the highest average level – 1,346 mg per day – according to an analysis of data from the government’s Health and Nutrition Examination Survey.
Calcium and Your Fat Cells
Calcium does far more than just keep your skeleton strong. Without enough calcium circulating in your bloodstream, your heart wouldn’t beat, your blood wouldn’t clot, your hormones wouldn’t regulate your metabolism and your nerves wouldn’t transmit signals. If calcium levels fall – if you eat a low-calcium diet, for example – the body releases more of the hormone calcitriol.
Calcitriol increases absorption of calcium in the intestines, so you get the most calcium possible from food. In addition, it increases reabsorption through the kidneys, so that you lose as little as possible through excretion. Calcitriol also controls how fat cells work. When you get too little calcium and more calcitriol is released, your fat cells make and store more fat, causing weight gain.
In a study conducted at the University of Tennessee, overweight people were put on one of three eating plans for six months. Group 1 ate a diet that was 500 calories below maintenance level – the level at which you neither gain nor lose weight – and had no more than one serving of dairy a day for a total of 400 to 500 mg of dietary calcium.
Group 2 ate the same calorie-restricted diet but took an 800-mg calcium supplement for a total of 1,200 to 1,300 mg of calcium. Group 3 also ate the calorie-restricted diet but included three servings of low-fat dairy a day, bringing their total calcium intake to 1,200 to 1,300 mg.
Consequently, group 1 lost 6% of total weight; group 2 lost 7.5%; and group 3 (the low-fat dairy group) lost 11%. Group 3 also lost more body fat than the other groups, particularly around the waist area. This is an important finding because a slimmer waist is associated with a lower risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes and cancer.
This means that adding three servings of low-fat dairy to your diet can increase the amount of weight you lose by 70%, increase the amount of body fat you lose by 64% and help you lose 47% more fat from your belly.
Other studies have replicated these findings as well. In a 10-year study of 3,000 people ages 18 to 30, researchers at Harvard University found that people who ate three servings of dairy a day had a 60% lower risk of being overweight than those who consumed less calcium.
Food Vs. Supplements
Studies show that calcium from dairy foods is more effective for weight loss than supplements, because food is a complex mixture of known and unknown components. There is cooperation among the components that can’t be reproduced in a nutritional supplement. Dairy contains calcium and a host of other biologically active components, including the amino acid leucine. Recent research reveals that leucine may increase the ability of muscle to use fat.
What to Do
To lose an average of one pound per week, you need to cut calorie intake and increase calorie burning by about 500 calories per day (the equivalent of a daily 2-mile walk), or 3,500 calories per week. To boost the loss to 1.5 to 2 pounds, you need 3 or 4 servings of dairy a day, for a total of 1,200 to 1,600 mg of calcium. The easiest way to get that is with 3 servings of non-fat (skim) or low-fat milk (8 ounces per serving), yogurt (8 ounces) or cheese (1.5 or 2 ounces, processed). Remember that boosting calcium will always help you lose more.