Does ditching dairy help you lose weight?

Dairy and weight loss

Dairy foods are usually the first to go when someone wants to lose weight. It makes sense: dairy foods like milk and cheese can be high in fat so if you cut them out, you should lose weight. Right?

It turns out, as it so often does, that foods we have eaten for thousands of years still have a place in our diet. And dairy, if anything, may be becoming more important.

Are you trying to lose weight? Read our comprehensive guide on weight loss to understand where to begin, what happens when you lose weight, and what doesn't work when it comes to dieting.

Cut out dairy, lose the kilos?

Low fat diets have been popular for several decades and in a way it makes perfect sense that you should lose weight if you don't eat fat. Fatty foods are high in energy - and energy that isn't burnt will be stored in the body - as fat.

But when it comes to dairy foods, the evidence is pointing in a different direction. Since the 1980s, surveys of thousands of people in the US have shown that those who have a higher intake of calcium and dairy products had lower body weight and less body fat.

That is not to say that dairy foods make you lose weight - but it does suggest that dairy foods are satisfying.

What's good about dairy?

Dairy foods provide a complete protein. Unlike some other sources, like nuts, seeds and legumes, dairy contains all essential amino acids your body needs.

Dairy foods also contain numerous other vitamins and minerals, including vitamin A and riboflavin (vitamin B2) - and perhaps more importantly, calcium.

Calcium is the main component of your bones, teeth and nails. It also performs a few other life sustaining functions in your body, like muscle contraction and regulation of heartbeat.

When you don't eat enough calcium rich foods, your body will start drawing calcium from your skeleton. Your skeleton is like a piggy bank for calcium - if you make too many withdrawals, your bones will start losing density.

The silent disease

As we live longer lives, we are more exposed to the dangers of bone density loss. One in two Australian women and one in three men over the age of 60 experience a fracture due to osteoporosis, which is a disease that makes the bones brittle due to mineral loss.

In short, Osteoporosis Australia describes the disease like this: [osteoporosis] makes bones become brittle leading to a higher risk of breaks. Osteoporosis occurs when bones lose minerals, such as calcium, more quickly than the body can replace them, causing a loss of bone density.

About 1 million Australians today suffer from osteoporosis - a number that is expected to rise sharply in the next decade.

Including 2 to 4 daily serves of dairy in your diet is a proven way to support your skeleton and keep your bones healthy. Certain groups, including pregnant, breastfeeding and post-menopausal women, and teenage boys and girls require more calcium than others.

What's bad about dairy?

Not everyone can eat dairy – that’s its biggest problem. Lactose, a type of sugar found in dairy products, can cause digestion problems for some people.

People with lactose intolerance need to eat a different source of calcium, like wholegrain cereals, legumes, tofu, nuts, spinach and broccoli.

Dairy foods, especially cheese, can also be high in fat and particularly saturated fat. Where possible, you should choose the lower fat variety as long as it’s not loaded with added sugar.

Learn more: Healthy fats vs bad fats: fatty foods that are good for weight loss

Overall, dairy plays a central role in a healthy and balanced diet and it is one of the food groups on the Total Wellbeing Diet. It is an excellent source of protein and calcium and a string of other minerals and nutrients.

On the Total Wellbeing Diet, we recommend 2 to 4 serves of dairy per day, which equates to a cup of low-fat milk, 2 slices of cheese or a 175g tub of yoghurt. 

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