Dairy and weight loss: Find out if dairy is right for you

Studies show dairy can help with fat loss, but it's not for everyone. Find out whether you should ditch the dairy or add more to your diet.

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The link between dairy and weight loss is controversial: Some studies have found an inverse relationship between increasing your dairy intake and the numbers dropping on the scale, while others have found the opposite.

According to a study published in the current issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, increasing your intake of dairy products can help you shed pounds. The study looked at 322 overweight and obese adults aged 40 to 65. The researchers found participants with the highest dairy calcium intake – 600 mg, equal to about two cups of milk a day – lost 12 pounds at the end of two years. In comparison, those who stayed on the conservative side of dairy – averaging only 150 mg of calcium or ½ cup of milk – lost only seven pounds. The researchers estimated that every 240 mg of calcium consumed was associated with nearly a 50 percent greater chance of achieving a weight loss above average in the first six months of the study. These results are certainly encouraging, however, the added vitamin D in the study may have also played a large part since this component is essential in the body’s ability to absorb calcium, which spurs further reductions in body fat.

Researchers at McMaster University found in their study, the group that consumed a high-protein, high-dairy diet while engaging in a strength training program experienced greater whole body weight loss particularly in the hard-to-lose abdominal area. As an added bonus, this group experienced a small boost in lean muscle. The reason? Milk may help regulate appetite, and whey protein can aid muscle growth

The studies indicated it was milk proteins that appeared to inhibit the enzymes involved in fat storage. As well, it’s thought that an increased intake of calcium can boost excretion of fat through the digestive tract (i.e. in your feces), and thereby may play a role in weight management and preventing weight gain. But just as the case becomes stronger for ensuring a daily dose of dairy, another clinical trial published in American Society for Nutrition and a few more studies, found little evidence to support the link between dairy and weight loss.

So should dairy play a role in your weight loss program, or not? Simply stated – it depends on your body and your ability to become aware of the difference between how you look and feel when consuming dairy and while avoiding it.

When to ditch dairy from your diet
So when is dairy not a good option? Here’s my view on the issue: There’s no point in selecting low-fat dairy as a protein source to stimulate fat loss – if you have a dairy allergy or sensitivity. In fact, I find a majority of my patients and readers of my books are sensitive to dairy, wheat and/or gluten, without an awareness of the problem. While some may experience bloating, gas, heartburn, constipation or any other symptom of digestive upset, other problems like sinus congestion, fatigue, joint pains, acne, eczema, post-nasal drip, headaches, water retention, facial puffiness or dark eye circles may plague others.

Those who experience dairy-induced tummy troubles could be reacting to the dairy proteins or the sugar in milk, known as lactose. The enzyme lactase must be present to hydrolyze lactose into glucose and galactose for digestion. Amazingly, up to 95 percent of the population does not, however, produce lactase on their own (though this varies by race and ethnicity – Europeans, for instance, appear to have the best ability to digest dairy). Undigested lactose then passes through the stomach into the intestines where it must be fermented. The results aren’t pretty when symptoms like gas, stomach cramps, bloating, flatulence, constipation or diarrhea often ensue. This same group may find they are sensitive to gluten as well (and vice versa), as it has been shown that milk proteins often cross-react with gluten.

If you’re unsure whether dairy causes issues for you, the best approach would be to remove all dairy sources for a minimum of two weeks. After this period of avoidance, reintroduce it at one or two meals in one day and pay attention to any symptoms that may occur that day, or on rising the morning after (including puffy eyes, dark circles under your eyes, fatigue, water retention, stomach issues, gas and so forth). This allergy elimination and identification process is clearly laid out, complete with recipes and weekly meal plans in both The Supercharged Hormone Diet and The Hormone Diet.

If you confirm that you tolerate dairy well, here is my list of your best options, which are low in fat and carbs, and highest in protein:

  • Cottage cheese or ricotta cheese — ½ cup for a snack, ¾ cup for a meal
  • Organic pressed cottage cheese — ½ cup for a meal
  • Allegro 4 percent cheese (any flavour) — 2 servings for a meal or 1 for a snack
  • Greek yogurt 0 percent — 1 serving
  • Organic plain, low-fat or non-fat yogurt (no sugar added!) — ¾ cup
  • Whey protein isolate (a good option for the dairy-sensitive as well) – 1 scoop or 30g serving

If you are looking for a dairy alternative, you can try one of these as part of a meal or in your smoothies:

  • Plain soy milk, unsweetened (max, once per day) — ½ cup
  • Almond milk, unsweetened — ¾ cup
  • Goat’s milk, goat cheese, sheep cheese — 1 tablespoon
  • Goat yogurt — ½ cup

Natasha Turner, N.D. is a naturopathic doctor, Chatelaine magazine columnist, and author of the bestselling books The Hormone Diet and The Supercharged Hormone Diet. Her newest release, The Carb Sensitivity Program, is now available across Canada. She is also the founder of the Toronto-based Clear Medicine Wellness Boutique. For more wellness advice from Natasha Turner, click here.