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Dairy and Weight Loss

Two weeks ago, we looked at the effects of high-fat dairy as it relates to heart health. Overall, full-fat dairy has been shown to have somewhere between a beneficial and neutral effect on the risk of developing heart disease, stroke and other related issues. The idea that dairy fat can be a contributor to heart disease appears to be without merit. Of course, there are other concerns people have related to full-fat dairy, such as its effect on weight management, the types of dairy individuals should consume and, of course, there’s the question of whether or not some people should even consume dairy at all. We’ll continue the dairy consumption discussion today by focusing on the impact full-fat and non-fat dairy have on weight management, as well as look at the nutrient values of conventional, organic and grass-fed dairy.

Dairy and Weight Management

Many studies and papers have been written about the importance of dairy in a weight management plan. Some of the papers focus on the importance of calcium in the regulation of fat metabolism. Others focus on the protein benefits. Unfortunately, most of the weight management-related dairy studies have either been observational studies, where consumers were asked about their dairy consumption in general, not specifying low-fat versus high-fat dairy, or the studies have been controlled studies that used low-fat dairy to replace other foods in the diet. There is a lack of good research comparing higher levels of low-fat and higher levels of full-fat dairy on weight management. However, it is well known that a low-fat approach to weight management is usually unsuccessful in the long term. It is also well known that the fat found in dairy contains important nutrients which may help the body regulate body fat levels.

In order to make assumptions about dairy’s effect on body fat levels, this issue can be looked at a couple different ways:

  • If dairy products replace other foods in the diet, will they help in body fat regulation?
  • If dairy products are beneficial, is there any additional benefit to be gained from using full-fat vs. low-fat dairy varieties?

To answer the first question, you must understand how diet studies can be constructed. For example, if a study is designed in a way where dairy products are consumed three times per day in place of bread, juice or pastries, you can almost be assured that dairy will come out favorably. Unfortunately, all that you know at the end of the study is that dairy is better than the foods that the dairy replaced. That does not mean that dairy is the best solution for weight management, only that it is a better choice. Would fish, meat or poultry be even better yet, being that they have no sugar and are higher in protein by percentage? Would these options also be better because a fair number of people have trouble with lactose or casein in milk?

For example, a 2005 study compared the consumption of a commercial yogurt three times per day as part of a calorie-reduced diet against a standard diet that was more restricted in dairy products. The yogurt group showed better losses of body fat, including belly fat and less lean body mass loss, along with a few other improved health markers. However, it’s difficult to determine whether the loss was from the fact that dairy provides a high-quality protein source, or was it that the yogurt group took in twice as much calcium as the other group, or could it even be that the yogurt provided live bacterial cultures which could be beneficial for gut health, which has also been shown to be beneficial for body fat regulation. The downside of this particular study was that the yogurt used also included the artificial sweeteners aspartame and acesulfame potassium (Ace-K) and artificial colors.[i]

Other similar studies have produced similar results. Many of the recent studies on dairy used low-fat or non-fat dairy to compare against groups who consumed little to no dairy. In some of the studies, the result was a higher overall protein intake, which could be a big reason for the increased fat loss and better maintenance of lean body mass.[ii]

I wasn’t able to locate weight loss studies using full-fat dairy, or studies comparing fat loss results of full-fat dairy to low-fat dairy and conventional diets. Possibly, researchers or those funding the research have a bias that they bring to the study design, assuming low-fat and non-fat dairy will be more effective. This is unfortunate, as the fat found in dairy provides a variety of important nutrients. Without clinical studies to show the effects, we must look at what the nutrients found in dairy fat provide, and understand what we’re missing out on by not consuming them.

Dairy Fat


Conjugated Linoleic Acid (CLA) is one of the most significant nutrients related to dairy fat’s effect on body fat regulation. CLA is formed when microbes in cattle convert linoleic acid in their food into CLA. When cattle are fed their natural diet of grass, they produce more CLA than when they’re fed grain, as most are in a feedlot or conventional dairy farm.

Not all CLA is the same, and some is made synthetically. Naturally occurring CLA in dairy is typically found in two forms; cis-9, trans-11 which makes up 90% of the CLA and trans-10, cis-12 which makes up 10%. While the chemical structure is not important for this article, it is important to know there are other forms that can be made in a lab and used in supplements., But it’s the cis-9, trans-11 / trans-10, cis-12 combination that is the naturally occurring form, and the one that’s been shown to have associated health benefits. Research has shown these two forms of CLA support fat loss and lean mass gain.

As a side note, it’s this type of CLA, under the brand name Clarinol® that we use in LeanSource, our weight loss support supplement. Clarinol, which combines the 9,11 and 10,12 forms of CLA, has solid scientific research to support its use in body fat regulation. Other brands of CLA have not produced consistent results as they may include other forms of CLA.

CLA’s effect on body composition appears to come through a variety of mechanisms. It’s been shown to reduce energy intake and increase energy expenditure through elevated basal metabolic rate, suppression of fat storage, and increased lipolysis, or fatty acid breakdown.[iii]

Saturated Fats

Dairy fat contains a variety of saturated fats which have proven health benefits as well. Butyric acid modulates gene function and may help in cancer prevention, caprylic acid may slow tumor growth,[iv] and lauric acid has been shown to have antiviral and antibacterial properties, even being able to kill H. pylori.[v] These healthy fats provide good reason to use butter for cooking rather than many of the highly processed vegetable oils or other man-made fats on the market.

Unsaturated Fats

Oleic acid is found in dairy fat, as are the polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) linoleic and alpha-linoleic acid. Though the human body is not great at converting ALA to the health-promoting essential fatty acids EPA and DHA commonly found in fatty fish, ALA can provide a non-fish source of some of these important nutrients. Part of the issue with the fats we consume today is that our ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids is so high. Dairy fat has a very low ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fats compared to many other non-marine products.[vi]


Depending on the type of dairy one consumes, it can be seen as a good source of protein. Butter and heavy cream have many of the rich fatty acids mentioned above, but lack protein. Cheese, on the other hand, has very little carbohydrate and, by percentage, a greater amount of fat and protein. Most of the protein in dairy comes from casein. In milk, casein makes up about 80% of the total protein amount, with whey making up the remaining 20%. Unfortunately, a fairly significant percentage of people have trouble digesting casein which presents a problem with consuming milk, along with those who have lactose intolerance. This is a topic we’ll cover at another time.

Casein digests slowly, so amino acids are released at a steadier rate. Whey protein is digested rapidly, which is why it is such a popular supplement for use before, during or after exercise. Of the two proteins, when used by themselves, whey protein appears to be one of the best sources of dietary protein available. Well before research was available, an Italian proverb dating back to about 1777 declared “If everyone was raised on whey, doctors would be bankrupt.”[vii]

Other proteins found in milk that have health benefits include immunoglobulin A, lactoferrin and lactalbumin.

Amino acids are building blocks of protein and play important roles in body functions, especially in the maintenance of lean body mass, which is important for improving overall body composition. Dairy is rich in essential amino acids, which the body cannot make on its own. Of the essential amino acids, three of them — leucine, isoleucine and valine — play important roles in muscle protein synthesis.

From a body composition standpoint, it’s likely that the lower body fat levels seen in those who consume higher amounts of dairy come at least partly from a higher intake of high-quality protein.

Dairy is also a good source of the minerals calcium, selenium, magnesium and others. Beyond the protein in dairy, it’s very possible these micronutrients play a role in the weight management benefits of dairy.

Dairy and Weight Loss

The point of this second post on dairy was to address possible body composition benefits. Does consuming larger amounts of dairy offer body composition benefits? According to research, it appears so. In fact, the available research suggests that full-fat dairy may be better than low-fat or non-fat dairy for body fat regulation, because the fat in dairy has some powerful metabolism-regulating components in it. While some people attempt to eat fewer calories by choosing low-fat or non-fat food, research does not support this. Often, people end up eating more of other foods and make up the calories they thought they were avoiding because fat is a great appetite suppressant.

All this said, it doesn’t mean dairy should be added to what one is already eating. Instead, it should take the place of something else. It also doesn’t mean dairy is appropriate for everyone. And even for those who can consume dairy, there are good reasons why it probably shouldn’t be consumed every day.

Using the term “dairy” as I have throughout this and the previous blog posts makes it sound like all dairy is the same. That is not the case. Dairy foods include cheese, milk, cream and butter. Some would include ice cream in the list, but when looking for weight loss, a sugar-laden dessert, even if it contains some good nutrients from dairy, is unlikely to support one’s weight loss goals.

Cheese, milk, cream and butter can be used in the context of a healthy diet, but they do require some additional clarification. Beyond the type of dairy, the source makes a difference as well. There is a difference in what you put in your body when you buy conventional dairy, organic dairy or grass-fed dairy. That's what we'll talk about next week.

Lastly, even with the best-quality dairy products, not everyone should consume them. Allergies and intolerances can play a role in health as well as the ability to properly manage weight. We’ll cover these topics in upcoming blog posts.

Have you been successful in using dairy for weight loss? If so, share your experience below. Or just post comments or questions you have on the topic.

Written By Tom Nikkola - Director of Nutrition and Weight Management

[i] Zemel MB, Richards J, Mathis S, et al. Dairy augmentation of total and central fat loss in obese subjects. Int J Ob. 2005;29:391-397

[ii] Josse AR, Atkinson SA, Tarnopolsky MA, Phillips SM. Increased Consumption of Dairy Foods and Protein during Diet- and Exercise-Induced Weight Loss Promotes Fat Mass Loss and Lean Mass Gain in Overweight and Obese Premenopausal Women. J Nutr. 2011;141:1626-1634

[iii] Kennedy A, Martinez K, Schmidt S, et al. Antiobesity Mechanisms of Action of Conjugated Linoleic Acid. J Nutr Biochem. 2010;21(3):171-197

[iv] Thormar H, Isaacs EE, Kim KS, Brown HR. Interaction of visna virus and other enveloped viruses by free fatty acids and monoglycerides. Ann N Y Acad Sci 1994;724:465-471

[v] Sun CQ, O’Connor CJ, Robertson AM. Antibacterial actions of fatty acids and monoglycerides against Helicobacter pylori. FEMS Immunol Med Microbiol. 2003;36:9-17

[vi] Haug A, Hostmark AT, Harstad OM. Bovine milk in human nutrition – a review. Lipids in Health and Disease. 2007;6:25

[vii] Johnny Bowden. The 150 Healthiest Foods on Earth. p. 243. 2007. Fair Winds Press. Beverly, MA.

This article is not intended for the treatment or prevention of disease, nor as a substitute for medical treatment, nor as an alternative to medical advice. Use of recommendations in this and other articles is at the choice and risk of the reader.

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Reader Comments (16)

When omitting dairy for just one month, I rid my stomach, legs, and butt of ALL visible cellulite. I am already pretty small, but I lost somewhere between 6-8 pounds and I'm not sure how many pants were looser. I had also cut out all soy products and most refined sugars at the time, but believe the biggest results were thanks to the dairy omission. I no longer have the gross phlegm in the back of my throat like I used to. I'm experimenting with no acne medication to see if the dairy was also causing my acne. Now if I could just figure out my itchy skin/flaky scalp!

September 30, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterGertrude

Why does a "nutrition expert" continue to promote the consumption of meat and dairy products? Has he not heard of the China Study and many other non-meat/dairy industry funded science that debunks the "meat and dairy are good for you" myths? Dairy products are linked to prostate and other cancers. It also is shown to PROMOTE osteoporosis, not defend against it. I wish that a nutrition director for a corporation that calls itself "the healthy way of life company" would get out of his 80's bubble and look at the myths he's promoting as fact. I get the distinct impression he's doing what so many people do: look for "science" that promotes his own food choices. He likes the taste of meat, eggs and dairy, so he believes any "study" that endorses them. Sad. I suggest anyone wanting a more advanced presentation look at websites such as, and it's really not fair to be pushing these old food industry myths on millions of people looking for the facts about health.

September 30, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLMN

Dr. T. Colin Campbell, arguably the foremost epidemiological researcher alive today, believes that animal proteins are the prime carcinogen in meat and dairy products. He points out that "human studies also support this carcinogenic effect of animal protein, even at usual levels of consumption. … No chemical carcinogen is nearly so important in causing human cancer as animal protein."

September 30, 2012 | Unregistered Commentermore

I have recently returned these full-fat foods--cheese, cream, and butter, along with 1 to 2 whey protein shakes a day, to my diet, and include non-starchy vegetables, eggs, and meats. I cut out all starch and sugar. And for the first time in 10 years of trying to lose weight, I have lost 7 pounds. And the best thing is, I'm never hungry. Fat is the best appetite suppressant. And my cholesterol and other heath numbers are excellent. Plus my energy has doubled, and my body fat percentage has decreased by 7%. I have learned so much at Lifetime and from my trainers, and from these wonderful articles. Thanks, Tom, as I look forward to each article you write,

September 30, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLKS

Check out weston a. price foundation.

September 30, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterssa

The China Study ranks right up there with the abusive fallacies of Ancel Keyes himself.
There are no properly conducted modern studies which show that animal proteins themselves are a major carcinogen that havent been countered or debunked by so many others. If anything the best possible finding recently was on heterocyclic amines as carcinogens as a result of overcooked fired meat products, and even that is a stretch since you would have to burn the heck out of your meat to create an appreciable amount of that carcinogenic product. And then obviously consumption of high levels of processed meat products can lead to health problems, but I could puff up any type of food with artificials and preservatives and turn it into a health monster.
I personally see a lot of success with using full fat dairy in my diet, and did when I lost 80 lbs. But I also was later checked and found out, despite my native american heritage, that I have no issues with either casein, or lactose, whereas other members of my family are more or less lactose intolerant. Milk is one of my favorite foods, so it was worth getting checked out to make sure.
Its a good idea to try both ways to see which works better for one personally, or better yet just get tested to eliminate the guesswork.
@Gertrude it sounds like you have a milk intolerance. I ha(d) the exact same symptoms, but they came from gluten, which I cant digest.

September 30, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterBryan

Great two articles. Very informative. Looking forward to the next.
So far, this supports tendencies my husband and I see in our eating habits. When we eat full fat dairy foods like real butter or put half & half in our coffee, and even real ice cream, we find ourselves mysteriously feeling full quicker and not craving more and more of the low fat or "diet" versions.
Personally, I'd much rather drink a small glass of whole milk than a large glass of skim!

September 30, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterPiper

Good info, Tom. It seems like everyone is advocating avoiding dairy these days and it's good to see the other side. It's sort of like eggs were in the 80's. I would like to see some more information on homogenization though. It seems that among those who promote dairy, there are two arguments - 1) Eat whole fat dairy, and 2) Eat raw dairy. In regard to raw dairy, I wonder how many of the positive aspects might be attributable to the lack of homogenization. Perhaps homogenization causes the fat to act differently in the body than it otherwise would. I have only seen one mention of this in all of the reading I've done. Do you know of any studies?

It seems that those who promote eating full fat dairy are fond of saying that our grandparents did and they were so much healthier for it. From what I've seen, that's not true. My parents (born in the mid 1940's) were both raised on farms and both had a cow to supply the family's dairy needs. But what people overlook in this scenario is that not being homogenized, all the cream rose to the top. My mom's family routinely sold the cream and the family kept the skim milk. With WWII rationing came oleo, aka margarine. I have lots of old recipes from agricultural areas that should have had easy access to butter, but oleo is the primary fat called for in baking. I think once they got used to margarine, it stuck. As a child, I never remember eating butter at my grandparents' houses, but there was always Blue Bonnet, Parkay (remember this? or Country Crock. My grandad ate bread with a THICK layer of margarine at nearly every meal. So the fake fat consumption probably goes back much farther in time than most of us realize. Telling people to consume full fat dairy now does not take us back to the way our grandparents or even great grandparents consumed it. A bottle of whole milk would have been cream on top, skim underneath. Why doesn't anyone talk about this? Maybe there is some advantage to consuming milk and cream separately. Who knows?

September 30, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterShauna

Several techniques that I can suggest is about how you manage those food you eat. One example is the technique on how to increase your metabolism from eating slowly and eating several times but only a few ones. According to what I've read from a good immune system is also a factor on managing your weight, knowing that you are getting the right amount of nutrients with only eating less could be a good diet program for an individual.

October 1, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAiza Lauren

It's amazing to watch people who supposedly care about nutrition try to justify their consumption of unhealthful "foods". Meat, dairy and eggs are completely unhealthful, promote heart disease, cancer, strokes and other ills, but because they "taste good" certain people will fight tooth and nail to defend these poor "food" choices. If these same people were smokers, they'd find "studies" to support that, too. Sad.

October 1, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAmazed

Terrible article. I am more confused now.

October 1, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterTroy

As with several other controversial topics that continue to arise in all forms of media, including this blog, it's interesting to read the comments supporting (or outright bashing) both "sides" of this topic (which also could be seen as a religious war based on the tone of some comments).

This information needs to be read and unsterstood without the blinders of personal beliefs on. The "belief blinders" are one of the main critiques of nearly all scientific research, otherwise known as bias - whether in study design, interpretation, or flat out mis-representation of data (unnecessary elimination or altering of significant data relationships). It's especially prevalent in nutritional research, perhaps worst of all in epidemiological studies which are observational in nature and CANNOT prove causation.

The mention of T. Colin Campbell's book, "The China Study" attempting to thwart any and all potential health effects of dairy in the above comments raises some interesting points about the very concerns of using epidemiological, observational (hand-picked) data. For those of you with the desire and patience to read 9,000 word blogs, I suggest you read some of the commentary of the actual study data that Denise Minger wrote about on her posts.

T. Colin Campbell made some interesting inferences essentially trying to prove causation of ALL animal proteins in the development of cancers. This stems from much of his repsected career in which he studied the effects of an isolated protein from cow's milk (casein) on tumor growth and development in mice and rats. While some of his work described a sort of ON/OFF cancer switch mechanism in some of his rodent models, he made a dangerous CAUSAL attack on some of the ASSOCIATION data in the China Study. To make matters more confusing, this inference generalized effects of some of his controlled studies of ONE isolated protein (casein) to the entire human population's relationship with ALL animal proteins. This is a BAD explanation even if it relied on GOOD, VALID causation data.

Again, please separate belief from science when reading information of any type - blog, book, or peer-reviewed and randomized, controlled science. Also use caution with drawing "black & white" causal relationships from any study. We are each our own experiment so we must use the best information to adjust our behaviors and draw our own conclusions based on whether or not our desired outcome was reached. If the desired outcome is not reached, then it may be time to re-think your own interventions or methods, despite what our beliefs may be. And most importantly, respect one another and keep an openly critical but civil mind.

In health,


October 1, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Kriegler, RD/LD

I didn't feel the author was promoting milk consumption. He said several times that it isn't for everyone, and also that he'd be following up with information on the type of dairy and the source of the dairy, and that it shouldn't necessarily be consumed by everyone or every day. I can see this is a controversial topic. I'm interested to hear the differences between cow's milk and goat's milk. I'm assuming that raw milk of any kind is better for consumption than conventionally processed dairy.

October 1, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAnnie

@LMN: Could you provide references for your statements? You mention Dr. Fuhrman and The China Study, but the actual China Study (not the book by T. Colin Cambpell) is an epidemiological study. It can only show associations, not cause and effect. Unfortunately, many people have seen these "associations" as cause and effect issues. The China Study can show no such thing. It can only point at areas of additional research. The statement that milk "causes" osteoporosis is a big leap from any associations a study may have shown.
@more: Same as I mention above. As for milks "carcinogenic" properties, it isn't milk, but a component of milk, casein, studied in rats that has been shown to be carcinogenic "in rats." CLA, another component in milk, has anti-carcinogenic properties.
@Amazed: We don't try to justify anything. We're just pointing out what the most current research shows. We don't look at observational or epidemiological studies as reasons to recommend dietary changes.
@Annie: Thanks. We'll be discussing some of that in upcoming posts.

October 4, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterTom Nikkola

Cow's are mammals. A cow has to have a baby calf in order to produce milk. The milk a cow produces is for her baby, and the high fat content is for a calf to grow up big and strong. Human beings are not meant to eat dairy products! Leave dairy and all animal products off your plate, and you can be much healthier.

October 7, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMelissa Marshall

Not sure if I agree with this, but there is one thing that I think we all can agree on, there is a major weight issue in this country. Only last month was National Childhood Obesity Awareness Month, and it really has opened my eyes. Proper nutrition and a lack of daily physical activity are all factoring into the childhood obesity epidemic. As things continue, the cost of childhood obesity could start to really weigh down on the government. Just look at a recent study from Canada on the costs of childhood obesity.

October 25, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterStephen in Atlanta

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