The “milk builds strong bones” mantra was drilled our heads as kids, but this essential mineral isn’t just for building strong, healthy bones — studies suggest that calcium could be another weapon against body fat.
BUT before you start chugging a gallon of milk every day, just know that calcium won’t magically melt away the weight you want to lose. But it does play a key role in a bunch of bodily processes, so it’s an important part of a healthy, balanced diet, which is important when your goals are to drop fat, lose weight, and get healthy.
Why Do You Need Calcium?
Calcium is a macromineral because we need it in such large amounts — the recommended daily allowance is around 1,000 milligrams for adult men and women, and bumps up to at least 1,200 milligrams as we age.
The large majority (around 99 percent) of calcium is stored in our bones and teeth; the rest is found elsewhere in our bodies (blood, muscle, tissues, etc.) helping our blood vessels and muscles function, nerves fire smoothly, and encouraging the proper secretion of hormones, among other tasks.
Are You Getting Enough Calcium?
The problem with this essential mineral is that there’s more than even money that you are not getting enough calcium in your daily diet. According to the National Institutes for Health, several groups of Americans do not meet the recommended daily intake for calcium, specifically boys and girls ages 9-18, women older than 50, and men older than 70.
A study in the Journal of American College of Nutrition suggests that pattern may be influenced by the fact that we stop drinking as much milk as we transition out of our school years, and some of us become lactose-intolerant as we age.
Fortunately for the lactose-intolerant, or those of us that just don’t care for the white stuff, there are a lot of whole-food sources of calcium out there. Americans get about 72 percent of their calcium from milk and other dairy products, but other foods that are high in calcium include tofu, sardines, sesame seeds, dark leafy greens, and spinach.
Calcium May Help Reduce Body Fat… If You’re Deficient
So what’s the deal with calcium and weight loss? There are a few studies out there that show some kind of link between calcium and fat loss — with caveats, of course.
A small study found that obese women participating in a weight loss program who were calcium deficient lost more than 13 pounds after taking daily calcium supplements, compared to the control group, which lost a little over two pounds in the control group.
A review of studies on the link between dietary calcium intake and body weight suggests that calcium seems to bind more fatty acids in the intestines, thereby inhibiting the absorption of some fats. The review concluded that “calcium and dairy food intake can influence many components of energy and fat balance.”
Another small study showed subjects who consumed three servings of yogurt daily as part of a reduced-calorie diet lost more weight than those who simply cut calories alone. The yogurt eaters consumed around 1,100 milligrams of calcium daily. The non-yogurt eaters consumed about 500 milligrams of calcium a day (the average amount in the typical American’s diet).
The yogurt eaters lost 22 percent more weight, 61 percent more body fat, and 81 percent more abdominal fat than the non-yogurt eaters. As with the most recent study, the researchers hypothesized that the extra calcium provided by yogurt played a role in increasing the amount of weight lost during the study period.
So while there is some limited data to support the theory that calcium may play a role in weight control and weight loss, more research still needs to be done.
The Source of Calcium Counts
Another question that still needs further investigation is the source of calcium and why it’s important. Most of the studies investigating calcium’s role in regard to losing weight used dairy-sourced calcium.
“Dairy for some reason, yet unexplained, has a greater effect on fat loss and specifically trunk fat loss than does calcium alone,” says Rachel Novotny, PhD, RD, professor and chair of the department of human nutrition, food, and animal sciences at the University of Hawaii.
Researchers believe that there are various potential mechanisms that may explain those additional benefits. For example, some of the minerals in dairy foods, such as phosphorous and magnesium, may enhance calcium’s beneficial effects on fat breakdown within cells.
So far, the research doesn’t address whether there are possible weight-loss benefits of calcium from sources other than dairy, or whether you can simply take a non-dairy-sourced calcium supplement, such as calcium lactate or gluconate.
Obviously, for those of us who can consume dairy without any issues, including milk, cheeses, and yogurt in our diets is a viable option. However, for many others, that simply isn’t a possibility. In fact, for many of those who can’t safely consume dairy products, a simpler alternative could ensure adequate daily intakes.
One viable option is taking calcium supplements, and there are literally hundreds of calcium supplements on the market from which to choose. Many of them are excellent choices for meeting your calcium needs.
The Bottom Line
While the jury is still out on whether it’s a viable weight-loss tool, there are plenty of other reasons why calcium is an important part of a healthy eating plan. Most of the evidence shows that we should all be getting more calcium in our diet, period. So drink your milk and/or get more leafy greens and other calcium-rich foods into your diet for strong bones and a healthy body.