Psychology Department

Health Psychology Home Page

Papers written by students providing scientific reviews of topics related to health and well being

Search HomeWeight LossAlternative Therapy | Supplements | Eating Disorders | Fitness | Links | Self-Assessment | About this Page |

The Skinny on Calcium and Weight Loss

Megan Zoffuto




The obesity rate in the United States has steadily increased in the past decade.  This disease has become such a problem that obesity is now considered an epidemic by the Centers for Disease Control.  With so much public and societal emphasis on weight and body image, fad diets are becoming more popular each day.  From the Atkins diet to the “eating right for your blood type” plan, people are searching for an easy solution to their weight problems.

Recently, many popular dairy products have introduced advertising campaigns claiming that the calcium in their products will help consumers lose weight. 


·      What are the claims made by the dairy industry?


Yoplait light could actually help you lose more weight than cutting calories alone.


“Milk your diet. Lose weight.”

“Including 24 ounces of low fat or fat free milk every 24 hours as a part of a reduced calorie diet may help you lose more weight and burn more fat than cutting calories alone.”


Commercials, magazine ads, and web sites claiming calcium as the new secret to weight loss, especially targeted towards women, are ubiquitous.  Yoplait, one of the top yogurt brands in the US, claims that their product will help women lose weight, especially in the waist area.  They have started a campaign called “Success is So Good”, documenting the weight loss journey of six women, each of which lost at least twenty pounds.  Each women has her own Yoplait product which helped her on her weight loss journey.  In addition, the “got milk?” campaign has also introduced a new program called 24/24 Milk Your Diet, where they emphasize the role of milk in weight loss.  Both programs provide recipes, health resources, and fitness tips for women.  But how do they back-up these claims?  Both programs and the National Dairy Council cite the work Dr. Michael Zemel, a nutrition researcher at the University of Tennessee.

·      Zemel’s Research 

Zemel and colleagues (2000) began with testing calcium’s effect on an obese mice model.  They hypothesized that consuming more calcium would increase intracellular calcium, which would in turn decrease body fat deposition, increase lipolysis (breakdown of fat stored in fat cells) and increase metabolic rate (Shi 1).  These mice were genetically altered to express their fat cells in the agouti gene, which influences whether fat cells burn or store energy-containing molecules (1).  The mice were put on a low calorie diet for six weeks.  One group was fed low levels of calcium, two groups received extra calcium, one in the form of dry milk and the other in the form of a carbonate supplement, and a fourth group received a significantly larger amount than the recommended dose (1).  The low calorie group lost 8% body weight and 11% body fat (1).  The high calcium milk group lost 25% body weight and 60% body fat while the supplement group lost 19% body weight and 42% body fat (1).  The extra calcium group showed little extra benefit over the high calcium groups (1).   All mice got the same exercise and diet plan (1).    

Effects of dietary calcium on adipocyte lipid metabolism and body weight regulation in energy-restricted aP2-agouti transgenic mice             

Next, Zemel and colleagues (2004) performed a randomized, placebo-controlled trial in 32 obese adults (Zemel “Calcium and Dairy…” 1).  Participants followed a standard, high-calcium, or high-dairy diet where all three groups decreased consumption by 500 kcal per day (1).  Those on the standard diet lost 6.4 ± 2.5 % of their body weight, on the calcium diet lost 8.6 ± 1.1% of body weight (a 26% increase), and those on the high dairy diet lost 10.9 ± 1.6 % of body weight (a 70% increase) (1).  In addition, fat loss from the trunk-region was 19.0± 7.9% of fat lost on the standard diet, 50.1±6.4% on the high calcium diet, and 66.2±3.0% on the high-dairy diet (1).  Zemel concludes that dietary calcium and dairy products significantly helped weight loss after decrease in caloric intake while also increasing the percentage of fat lost from the trunk-area (1). 

Calcium and Dairy Acceleration of Weight and Fat Loss during Energy Restriction in Obese Adults

Zemel also studied the effects of calcium on weight loss in African-American Adults.  Zemel did two trials (Zemel “Effects of Calcium and Dairy…” 3).  First, 34 participants were placed on a low calcium/low dairy or high dairy diet for 24 weeks with no change in energetic or caloric intake (3).  There were no significant changes in body weight of participants on this plan (5).  There were significant decreases in total body fat and trunk fat in the high dairy group and an increase in lean body mass, however (5 – 6).  In the second trial, 29 participants decreased caloric intake by 500 calories and were randomized to high or low dairy diets (3).  The decrease in caloric intake produced significant weight loss in all subjects (7).  Both weight and fat loss were two times greater in the high dairy diet (7).  Trunk fat loss was additionally greatly increased in the high dairy diet, shown by greater decrease in waist circumference in the high dairy group (7).

Effects of Calcium and Dairy on Body Composition and Weight Loss in African-      American Adults  

·      What does all this mean?

While Zemel’s research shows the significant effects dairy has on weight loss, it is important to remember a few things.

First, this research shows that dairy products facilitated weight loss better than calcium.  Is there another component in dairy products improving weight loss?

Second, in each trial, the only group that lost weight also reduced total caloric intake.  Therefore, dairy products are not the silver bullet for obesity.  Life style changes are essential to weight loss.

Third, the National Dairy Council and Yoplait fund Zemel’s research.  He also has a patent on his research, allowing him to profit from ads citing his research.  It is possible that his research is biased.    

Fourth, this research has not been duplicated.  We can, however look at similar studies involving calcium and dairy products.

·      Other Studies

Several studies involving adolescent girls, post and pre-menopausal women, and older adults increasing dairy product intake provide data that shows little difference in weight, fat mass, or lean mass. (Barr 2003 p.2).   More than 17 studies involving increased calcium supplementation intake on children, adolescents, women, post and pre-menopausal women also reported no difference in body weigh or composition between control and treatment groups. (3).

Increased Dairy Product or Calcium Intake: Is Body Weight or Composition Affected in Humans?     

However, Recker and colleagues (1996) detected a significant difference in the body weight of postmenopausal women when consuming 1.2 grams of calcium per day (Recker 1).  These women lost 0.35 kg/day more than the control group (1). 

Correcting Calcium Nutritional Deficiency Prevents Spine Fractures in Elderly Women

In addition, a study by Riggs and colleagues (2002) showed that women supplemented with 1.6 grams per day of calcium had “a more negative change in lean mass than that of controls, although group differences in weight and fat mass were not observed” (Barr 2003, p.3).

Increased Dairy Product or Calcium Intake: Is Body Weight or Composition Affected in Humans?     

Robert P. Heaney has also done extensive study on calcium intake and weight.  In one case, Heaney and Davies (2000) re-evaluated several studies originally designed to test the effects of calcium on the skeleton, to find associations between calcium and body weight (Davies 1).  One study was a randomized trial testing the effects of calcium supplements.  Significant negative association between calcium intake and weight were shown for all women (age groups including 30’s, 50’s and 80’s) (1).  Also, women receiving the lower amounts of calcium were more likely to be overweight, having a BMI greater than 26 (1).

Calcium Intake and Body Weight

In a study of 564 women, (Heaney 2003) the group in the lower 25% for dietary calcium had 15% overweight women, while the group receiving the recommended daily allowance (RDA) of calcium only had a 4% overweight rate (Heaney 3).  Similarly, obesity rates fell from 1.4% to 0.2% across the two groups (4).  In additional, at midlife, women in the lower 25th percentile of calcium intake gained an average of 0.42 kg per year while those who received the recommended amount of calcium lost an average of 0.011 kg per year (3).  The chance of being in the highest BMI quartile for the group receiving the RDA was reduced by 85% (5).This study suggests that mean weight gain at midlife can be zero if the recommended amount of calcium is obtained (6).  It additionally estimates that increasing average calcium intake can reduce the prevalence of overweight and obesity by 60-80% (5). 

Normalizing Calcium Intake: Projected Population Effects for Body Weight      

This data cannot truly discount or support Zemel’s research however, because none of these studies were primarily studying calcium/dairy’s effect on body weight and were not designed to test our question. 

·      Studies Comparable to Zemel

Shapses et al (2004) completed a study using calcium as a variable and weight as the primary outcome (Shapses 1).  The study involved 3 separate randomized trials of 100 pre- and postmenopausal women (1).  There was a 1000 mg per day difference between placebo and treatment groups (1).  The calcium group received an average of 1000 mg more than the placebo group (1).  There were no significant differences between the groups in body fat, body weight, or amount of weight or fat lost in those following a restricted diet (1).     

Effect of Calcium Supplementation on Weight and Fat Loss in Women


·      Conclusion

Will calcium really help you lose weight?  Studies show different answers. It is very important, however, to have the recommended daily allowance of calcium each day.  Calcium promotes healthy bones and teeth, proper blood clotting, and is important to healthy muscle and nerve function (Higdon 1).   Incorporating the proper amount of calcium in your diet may facilitate weight loss, but more importantly will support a healthy body.   


Recommended Daily Amounts of Calcium (Higdon 1)




14 – 18 years

1300 mg / day

1300mg / day

19 – 50 years

1000 mg / day

1000 mg / day

51 years and older

1200 mg / day

1200 mg / day

Basic Info on Calcium





Works Cited:


“24/24 Milk Your Diet. Lose Weight”.  2005. 18 September. 2005. 




Barr, S.I. (2003). “Increased Dairy Product or Calcium Intake: Is Body Weight or                           

Composition Affected in Humans?” Journal of Nutrition. 133:245S-248S,

January 2003


Davies, K.M., Heaney, R.P., Recker, R.R., Lappe, J.M., Barger-Lux, M.J., Rafferty,

K, Hinders, H. (2000). Calcium Intake and Body Weight”. The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism. Vol. 85, No. 12 4635-4638.


Heaney, R.P. (2003). “Normalizing Calcium Intake: Projected Population Effects

for Body Weight”. Journal of Nutrition. 133:268S-270S, January 2003.     


Higdon, Jane.  “Calcium.” The Linus Pauling Institute: Micronutrient Information      

Center. 2003. 18 September. 2005. <>


Recker, R.R., Hinders, S., Davies, K.M., Heaney R.P., Stegman, M.R., Lappe, J.M.,

Kimmel. D.B. (1996). “Correcting Calcium Nutritional Deficiency Prevents

Spine Fractures in Elderly Women”. Journal of Bone and Mineral Research.



Shapses, S.A., Heshka, S., Heymsfiel, S.B. (2004). “Effect of Calcium

Supplementation on Weight and Fat Loss in Women.” The Journal of

Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism. Vol. 89, No. 2 632-637. 


Shi, H., Dirienzo, D., Zemel, M.B. (2001). “Effects of dietary calcium on adipocyte

lipid metabolism and body weight regulation in energy-restricted aP2-agouti transgenic mice”. The FASEB Journal. 2001;15:291-293.


“Yoplait: Success is So Good”. Yoplait. 2005. 18 September. 2005.




Zemel, M.B., Thompson, W., Milstead, A., Morris, K., Campbell, P. (2004).

“Calcium and Dairy Acceleration of Weight and Fat Loss During Energy Restriction in Obese Adults”. Obesity Research.12:582-590.


Zemel, M.B., Richards, J., Milstead, A., Campbell, Peter. (2005). “Effects of

Calcium and Dairy on Body Composition and Weight Loss in African-Amercian Adults”. Obesity Research. 13:1218-1225.



Psychology Department

The Health Psychology Home Page is produced and maintained by David Schlundt, PhD.

Vanderbilt Homepage | Introduction to Vanderbilt | Admissions | Colleges & Schools | Research Centers | News & Media Information | People at Vanderbilt | Libraries |Vanderbilt Register | Medical Center 

  Return to the Health Psychology Home Page
  Send E-mail comments or questions to Dr. Schlundt