Cutting Fat With Calcium

This bone-strengthening mainstay gets a weight-loss makeover.

By Lisa James

March 2005

From your mom to the latest white-mustachioed celebrity, the message has been clear for years—to toughen your bones, drink your milk. The reason lies in milk's considerable concentration of calcium, the mineral that fosters skeletal strength.

If it did nothing else than build bone, calcium would be crucial to well-being. But scientists keep discovering new roles for this essential mineral, including cancer protection. The latest take on calcium: The mineral that makes bones heavier helps make the body lighter.

Burn, Baby, Burn

While most calcium stays in the skeleton, that 1% or so which circulates throughout the body assists in dozens of metabolic processes—including the burning of fat for both body heat (known as thermogenesis) and other energy needs (like another 10 minutes on the stair-stepper). Without enough calcium, these internal fires die down and fat cells balloon with excess lipid, forcing body fat and weight levels unhealthily upwards.

Calcium is proving its weight-loss worth in the halls of science. The first signs came several years ago, when researchers from the University of Tennessee found that obese mice on a calorie-restricted diet lost a whopping 42% of their body fat when fed calcium-enhanced chow, compared with only an 8% loss among mice deprived of both calories and calcium.

Calcium's fat-busting effect has carried through to humans. Several studies have shown that women who take in the highest levels of calcium from dairy foods drop the greatest amounts of weight and fat. What's more, these women have mostly lost fat from their middles, where excess poundage presents the greatest cardiovascular hazard (and the place where it’s also the toughest to lose). That may explain why getting goodly amounts of calcium is linked to having heart-healthy cholesterol levels (American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 6/03).

Cancer Suppression

In addition to helping the body shed unwanted weight, calcium also appears to drop the risk of colorectal cancer. Calcium acts in two ways: Indirectly, by binding with fat breakdown products so that they can’t damage the bowel, and directly, by protecting the bowel wall itself.

In one investigation, scientists compared the diet and supplement-taking habits of nearly 3,700 people with colon adenomas (which start as benign polyps) with those of nearly 35,000 people who were cancer-free. The results? People who took the greatest amounts of calcium ran a cancer risk 12% lower than those who got the smallest amounts (AJCN 11/04).

Even if polyps develop, calcium may still help. According to Israeli re­search­ers, people with polyps who took supplemental calcium saw their growths shrink by 58%; individuals on low-fat diets enjoyed the biggest benefits.

Of course, none of calcium’s recently discovered benefits obscure its role in securing skeletal health.

In fact, the US Surgeon General has warned that half the country’s population may suffer from osteoporosis, a condition that causes bones to become fracture-prone, by 2020 unless people start getting the calcium (along with exercise) they need now. The earlier one starts, the better; teenage girls who hopped on the calcium-and-exercise bandwagon in one study were rewarded with denser bones (AJCN 4/03).

Always take calcium in tandem with its mineral partner, magnesium (in a 2-to-1 ratio), along with its other partner, vitamin D. Extra calcium is a good idea for dieters, since weight loss can decrease this mineral’s absorption. Calcium supplements are most easily absorbed when taken in chelate form.

So remember, mom was right. For a trim middle and tough bones, take your calcium.

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