Medically Reviewed by Lindsey Marcellin, MD, MPH
Low-fat milk, fortified orange juice, leafy greens, and yogurt are all rich sources of calcium, but can they actually improve your weight-loss success?
One study has shown that eating three servings of low-fat, calcium-rich dairy a day — which is the same amount as the recommended daily amount of the mineral for good nutrition — helps weight loss. Other research reports that dietary calcium may prevent regaining weight after successfully losing it. And both women and men can easily build successful diets around calcium-rich foods.
Calcium: Why You Need It
There are many good reasons to eat foods rich in calcium, not the least of which is the long-term health of your bones. Your body needs calcium every day, and if you are not providing it through your diet, your body will use calcium stored in your bones, so it makes good nutritional sense to include it in your weight-loss plan, according to dietitian Donna L. Weihofen, RD, MS, a nutritionist at the University of Wisconsin Hospital and Clinics in Madison.
According to a recent U.S. Surgeon General report, many Americans fail to get the needed amount of calcium. Dieters who cut out dairy may be getting even less.
Calcium: Its Role in Weight Loss
Though more research is needed, the beneficial effect of calcium on weight loss and maintenance looks promising. One study compared a restricted-calorie diet not including recommended dairy servings to a restricted-calorie diet including the recommended amount of dairy, and found that the dairy diet will be more successful even if the same number of calories per day is eaten.
Another study showed that eating a diet with recommended levels of low-fat dairy products (three servings per day) allowed former dieters to actually eat more calories without regaining lost weight. The 18-month study of 103 overweight or obese women who had lost weight showed that for each 100 milligrams of calcium ingested per day, they prevented the regain of about 3.5 pounds.
And, according to a heavily publicized study of 338 adults, those who ate three or more servings of low-fat dairy daily were more likely to keep off the weight than those who ate none or one serving. This effect was limited to calcium from food or drink; calcium supplements did not prevent the regaining of weight.
One possible reason why people who eat calcium-rich foods appear to manage their weight more effectively is that they are choosing more filling, healthy foods over foods that are high in calories and low in nutrition.
“The reason [eating low-fat dairy] works is because people are displacing junk food or soda in their diets,” observes Kathy Hubbert, MS, RD, of EatRight Weight Management Services, University of Alabama at Birmingham.
Calcium: Putting It to Work in Your Diet
While there are no specific recommendations for the amount of calcium that could aid weight loss, the studies were based on national guidelines for healthy adults of 1,000 mg daily (1,200 mg a day for those over age 50). Good sources of calcium that can fit into most weight-loss diets include:
- Non-fat dairy products such as skim milk and yogurt (300 mg per 8 ounces)
- Tofu with calcium added (138 mg per ½ cup)
- Calcium-fortified juice and other foods (200 to 260 mg per 8 ounces)
- Dark leafy greens (90 to 99 mg per ½ cup cooked)
- Broccoli (42 mg per cup cooked)
- Canned sardines, in oil, with bones (324 mg per 3 ounces)
- Cheddar cheese (306 mg per 1.5 ounces)
Hubbert points out that if you are a reader of nutrition labels, which is helpful for weight loss, you can calculate the milligrams of calcium in a food by finding the daily value percentage and adding a zero. For example, if your yogurt portion says it will provide 30 percent of your daily calcium requirement, you know it contains 300 mg of calcium.
Weihofen adds that choosing the right low-fat, calcium-rich foods is important for weight loss. For example, cheese has calcium, but it is “calorie-expensive,” she says. So watch your portions if you include it every now and then. As an additional tip, she suggests eating foods fortified with vitamin D (or getting 15 minutes of sunlight a day), so your body can use the calcium you consume.
Calcium supplements can help you meet nutritional intake goals, but data so far suggest that any weight-loss benefits come from choosing calcium-rich foods over calcium supplements.
Even though research into the weight-loss boost provided by calcium is ongoing, you know your body needs calcium for best health, and there are plenty of healthy calcium-rich foods you can include in your calorie counting. Just make sure that most of the dairy products you choose are low-fat varieties of milk, cheese, and yogurt to benefit your entire body.