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  Diet & Nutrition

May 2011
Ishi Khosla
Dairy is usually one of the first things to be sacrificed when people start a calorie, cholesterol control diet. The jury on dairy seems to be still divided.

The anti-dairy lobby has several explanations for abandoning dairy, while, most scientific evidence and dietary guidelines do include low fat dairy as an integral part of a healthy diet. Interestingly, alongside its commonly known benefits including bone building and extremely valuable nutrition profile (calcium, magnesium, vitamin A, B vitamins and proteins), its role in weight management has been investigated.

Does dairy promote obesity?
Contrary to fears regarding its obesity promoting property, dairy seems to be doing completely the opposite. Calcium, one of the most abundant nutrients in dairy has been found to be useful in weight loss. A recent study reported that people who consumed low fat dairy products had lower body fat percentage and body mass index (BMI) compared to their counterparts.

Another study stated that a diet comprising high calcium foods resulted in an average weight loss of 24.6 pounds (11.2 kg.) in 16 weeks, which is greater than the average weight loss in one year in trials using weight loss drugs like dexfenfluramine, sibutramine or orlistat. (This study was carried in International Journal of Obesity & Related Metabolic Disorders, Sep 16, 2003)

Increasing calcium intake could reduce the risk of becoming overweight substantially, perhaps by as much as 70 percent. Studies state that each 300 mg increment in regular calcium intake is associated with approximately 1 kg less body fat in children and 2.5-3.0 kg lower body weight in adults.

Adequate calcium intake has also been shown to play a role in maintaining blood pressure, blood clotting, and nerve impulse transmission. It may also help in reducing pre-menstrual symptoms and risk of colon cancer.

How about people who are lactose intolerant?
Dairy intolerant individuals need not despair as similar benefits can be obtained by including calcium rich foods like soy, and soya products like tofu, soya milk, green leafy vegetables, seaweeds, miso, sesame seeds, flax seeds, sunflower seeds, poppy seeds, almonds and other nuts, ragi and amaranth. However, dairy products seem to be more effective as their calcium is better absorbed than other sources, with the exception of soy.

What are the other benefits of dairy?
Well, the good news does not end at calcium. Researchers believe that there are certain other compounds within dairy products, which may act as adjuncts with dietary calcium to produce anti-obesity effects. Such compounds that have been proposed are whey proteins, conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), and branched-chain amino acids.

Milk and yoghurt contain whey protein, which is rich in amino acid leucine. Whey stimulates building of muscles (fat free tissue), which helps in increasing metabolic rate. According to studies, it contains peptides (parts of proteins) that uniquely suppress fat synthesis.

What is CLA and how is it beneficial?
Conjugated Linoleic acid (CLA), (a variant of the essential fatty acid linoleic acid) is found in dairy products as milk, cheese, and butter, and even in the meat of cattle and lamb. It is a trans fat, which it is not harmful as other trans fatty acids, but perhaps is beneficial. Studies show that CLA reduces body fat by several mechanisms, including a reduced energy intake, increased metabolic rate, and a shift in the nocturnal fuel. CLA has also been shown to inhibit cancer by reduction of cell proliferation, alteration in the components of cell cycle and induction of apoptosis. CLA is a unique anti-carcinogen, which inhibits the growth of a number of human cancer cell lines and suppresses chemically-induced tumour development.

Researchers have also discovered that CLA helps in lowering cholesterol and reduced arterial plaque build up. It also appears to have antioxidant properties. Antioxidants may help prevent chronic diseases such as heart disease and cancer by inhibiting free radicals. Additional potential benefits include a reduction in food-induced allergic reactions, as well as the overall enhancement of the immune system. Data is limited and more studies are needed to reveal significant benefits of CLA supplementation.

So, next time you pick up your slice of cheese, don’t drown yourself in guilt, it may not be as bad for you as you think. If you stick to low fat milk & yoghurt & cheese, and control your total caloric intake, you may probably lose more weight than you ever did without it.

So what should our dairy intake be?

Aim for at least 2-3 servings of low fat dairy on a daily basis to achieve a calcium intake of 600-1000 mg/day.

Low fat, high calcium foods

Dietary Source

Calcium content (mg)

1% Fat Cottage Cheese (1 cup)


Non fat yoghurt (1/2 cup)


Skim Milk (1 cup)


Cooked Greens (1 cup)


Cooked Amaranth Greens (1 cup)


Cooked Soybeans (1 cup)


Tofu (1 ounce)


Sardines (3 ounces)



The fat content of milk can be reduced by adding water.

Fact: Adding water to milk dilutes all the essential nutrients, thereby, reducing its nutrient density.

Milk increases risk of heart disease.

Fact: Milk, in fact, has cardio-protective effects. A recent study reported that individuals who drank more than the median amount of milk had a reduced risk of an ischemic stroke, and possibly a reduced risk of an ischemic heart disease event.

Myth 3 
Milk is a complete food.

Fact :
Milk, although is high in nutrients, is deficient in iron, vitamin C, D, E and K.

Myth 4
Cow’s milk is superior than formula milk for infants.

Fact: Formula milk is better for infants under 1 year of age because cow’s milk is a potential allergen and fat in cow's milk is less digestible. Also, cow’s milk is a poor source of iron, vitamin C, zinc and essential fatty acids.

Myth 5
Milk is only needed in childhood and not in adulthood.

Fact: Everybody needs milk as it helps meet calcium requirements throughout life and reduces risk of age-related bone loss (osteoporosis and osteoporotic fractures).

IshiKhosla is a Clinical Nutritionnist and Director-Whole Foods India

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