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High-Dairy Diet May Drop Body Fat, Up Muscle

But Cutting Calories Necessary to Lose Weight
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WebMD Health News

July 29, 2005 -- A high-dairy diet may help you lose belly fat and gain muscle -- even if you don't eat less.

What's the catch? If you actually want to lose weight, you'll still have to eat less.

Those findings are the latest from Michael B. Zemel, PhD, director of the Nutrition Institute at the University of Tennessee. Zemel's earlier work showed that people on calorie-restricted diets lose more weight if they get plenty of low-fat dairy foods.

In a new two-for-one study, Zemel now extends these findings to black Americans. And he reports that obese people on high-dairy diets lose body fat and gain muscle -- resulting in zero weight loss or gain -- even if they don't eat less (and as long as they don't eat more).

"What happens when you move from a low- to a high-dairy diet without cutting calories? Well, if you just step on the scale after six months, the answer is: nothing," Zemel says. "That is disappointing. But if you look deeper, more is going on. But by just increasing dairy, your body fat comes down. These people lose nearly 5% of their body fat."

Losing Fat but Not Weight

Zemel looked at 34 obese black women and men who did not eat any more or less food during the 24-week study. Half ate three daily servings of dairy foods in place of lean meat. These people did not lose weight. But they lost nearly five pounds of body fat, gained muscle, had lower blood pressure, and lost an inch and a half around their waists.

"These people really lost a significant amount of body fat. And they gained a corresponding amount of lean mass," Zemel says. "That is remarkable."

Those on the low-dairy diet had no significant change in body fat, muscle, blood pressure, or waist size.

Of course, all of these people were still obese. Might dairy still make a difference if they ate less?

Losing Fat and Weight

"Calories do count," Zemel says. "We do not have a magic eraser. You cannot just throw milk at something and expect the pounds to melt off."

So Zemel's team put 29 obese black women and men on a calorie-restricted weight loss diet. They all decreased how much they ate by 500 calories.

They all lost weight. But those who ate lots of dairy foods lost 24.3 pounds in 24 weeks -- twice as much as those in the low-dairy group. And much more of their weight loss was fat, not muscle.

Zemel says black Americans have even more to gain from low-calorie, high-dairy diets than white Americans.

"African-Americans suffer a disproportionately high prevalence of obesity and overweight," he says. "And African-Americans consume the least calcium and the least dairy in the U.S. So this is the group at the greatest risk with the most to gain from this kind of diet."

Zemel's findings appear in the July issue of Obesity Research.

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