Is Dairy Bad for Weight Loss?

Holstein cows
Cows grazing in a field. (Image: tilo/iStock/Getty Images)

Dairy foods sometimes get a bad rap because they can be high in calories, saturated fat and cholesterol -- substances that have been associated with increased risk of heart disease, high cholesterol levels, inflammation, diabetes and other health issues. However, some studies have shown pronounced benefits of dairy products, including fat loss, muscle gain and improved weight maintenance. The jury is still out on how much dairy is healthy to eat, but it is clear that some dairy has the potential to help you slim down.

Nutrition Information

If you’re watching your weight and tracking calories, there are good reasons to choose low-fat or nonfat dairy products over full-fat offerings. A cup of full-fat milk has almost twice the total calorie count of skim, for example, but less overall protein. And while 1/2 cup of full-fat shredded cheddar cheese has 225 calories and 14 grams of protein, the nonfat version has just 88 calories and still packs 18 grams of protein. Protein has the potential to play a very important role in weight loss, as it’s more satiating than either fats or carbohydrates, which means it can keep you full for longer periods of time and even inspire you to eat fewer total calories.

Weight Control

In one study, dairy demonstrated a notable body composition advantage over soy, an alternate source of protein. The study, published in 2007 from Canadian metabolic and pediatric researchers, discovered that men who drank milk after exercising lost more fat mass and developed more lean muscle mass over a 12-week period than men who drank a soy protein beverage. Another study, the well known long-term Framingham Heart Study, has demonstrated that subjects who eat more dairy products seem to gain less weight over time and have lower waist circumferences than subjects who eat less than one serving of dairy per day.

Yogurt's Benefits

Yogurt has shown specific and unique benefits over other dairy products in the effort for weight control and weight loss. In one study, published in 2008 in the “American Journal of Clinical Nutrition,” French researchers found that a higher yogurt consumption was associated with lower total body weight and waist circumference. Other studies have shown that yogurt has the unique ability to improve immunity and relieve or treat some gastrointestinal conditions.

Dairy Downsides

Obviously, the term “dairy” encompasses a wide variety of foods, and they are not all nutritionally equal. Because many dairy products are relatively high in saturated fat and contain some trans fat as well, the Harvard School of Public Health recommends limiting dairy consumption to nurture better health. If weight loss is your goal, however, it’s more important that you eat a variety of healthful, low-calorie foods and exercise regularly than that you severely limit dairy or shun it altogether. For individual guidance in adjusting your diet, speak with your doctor or a Registered Dietitian.

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