Stop Ditching the Dairy

When people want to lose fat, it's quite popular to eliminate entire food groups, primarily because people like to blame certain food groups for making people like Eric Helms fat.

Of course, all of the things that people think make you fat don't make you fat.  Carbs?  No, they don't make you fat.  Grains?  No, they don't make you fat.  Artificial sweeteners?  No, they don't make you fat.  Sugar?  No, it doesn't inherently make you fat.

Dairy is also on this list of things that people think makes them fat.  When people want to lose weight, they LOVE to cut out dairy.  In fact, cutting out dairy is a staple of some diets like paleo or Whole30.

Here's the problem, though.  Not only does dairy NOT make you fat, but if you cut out dairy from your diet, you might be making fat loss harder, not easier.  Here's why.

MILK...IT DOES AN APPETITE GOOD

One of the main reasons that cutting out dairy may make fat loss harder is that dairy foods can have positive effects on appetite, which, in turn, will help you eat less (remember, eating less while still managing to feel satiated is one of the cornerstones of successful fat loss).  For example, some research has indicated that calcium may help with appetite regulation in people who are calcium deficient.  One study showed that a milk-based supplement helped lessen the increase in appetite that typically occurs with weight loss.  Other research indicates that dairy components, such as whey protein, may have appetite suppressant effects.  For example, dairy protein, and whey protein in particular, can increase insulin and GIP, two hormones that can have appetite suppressant effects.  In fact, there's quite a bit of research showing that whey protein can reduce appetite.  For example, one study showed that yogurt snacks containing high amounts of whey resulted in people eating nearly 200 calories less at lunch compared to regular yogurt.  Another study, which I mentioned in my article series on insulin, compared whey shakes to tuna, egg, or turkey shakes (YUCK!!!!!!).

While Brad Schoenfeld may like his tuna shakes, this study found the whey shakes to reduce appetite more, and also reduce calorie intake at a buffet compared to the other shakes.

It's not just whey, either.  There's also a fair amount of data demonstrating that yogurt can promote body weight stability through its influence on appetite.  You can find a complete review of the impacts of dairy protein on appetite here.

A BIT LESS FAT, A BIT MORE LEAN

While all this intellectual masturbation about the potential positive impacts of dairy is interesting, what really matters is what happens when you put dairy to the test in terms of body fat and body composition.  And whether you look at observational studies, or randomized controlled studies, the results are the same...dairy not only won't make you gain weight, but it may actually help you lose fat and maintain lean mass.

First, let's take a look at some of the observational studies.  For example, there is no relationship between intake of dairy products and BMI in Japanese women.  In U.S. men, there is no relationship between an increase in dairy consumption and long-term weight gain.  In perimenopausal women, high intakes of dairy products are actually inversely associated with weight gain (i.e, higher dairy product intakes are associated with less weight gain).

Of course, the problem with observational studies is that they are not controlled, and assessment of diet in such studies can be very inaccurate.  They also can't establish cause and effect.  For that, we need to turn to randomized controlled trials on animals and humans.  First, let's take a look at the animal data.  Animal studies show less weight gain when they are fed dairy products.  In mice, yogurt supplementation results in less weight and fat gain than controls on isocaloric diets.  In another study, transgenic mice lost weight on energy restricted diets.  The mice were then allowed to eat ad libitum (i.e., as much as they felt like).  The mice fed dairy products regained less fat and weight during refeeding.  In a third study, the intake of dairy products, but not a calcium supplement, decreased weight gain and body fat in mice fed a high-fat diet.  In a fourth study, dairy protein attenuated fat gain in rodents fed a high-fat, high-sugar diet.  In a fifth study, a dairy diet attenuated weekly weight gain in Sprague-Dawley rats.

Now, these are animal studies.  What about humans?  In one study, low-fat dairy products did not promote weight gain, while high-fat dairy products did.  Hmmm, could it be that the weight gain in this study was simply caused by excess calories and not the dairy?   In another study, increased intake of dairy products did not affect body composition.  In a third study, increased intake of dairy products did not impair weight loss.  In a one-year study, increased intake of dairy products did not affect changes in fat mass.  In a 6-month follow-up to this study, high dairy product intake predicted lower levels of fat mass.  In a 9-month study, increased intake of dairy products did not affect weight maintenance, but the high dairy group exhibited evidence of greater fat oxidation.  In a study on overweight police officers, dairy protein resulted in greater loss of fat mass, and greater gain in lean mass, compared to no dairy protein.

The ultimate test of whether dairy can impact body fat is by looking at the weight of the evidence across a large body of controlled trials.  To do that, we need a meta analysis, where scientists take a large body of studies and analyze them as a group to get an idea where the overall body of evidence points to.  Fortunately, one such meta-analysis was published in 2012.  In this analysis, the authors found that dairy helped reduce body fat by an additional 1.11 kilograms over no dairy when people were restricting their calories.

The above chart is called a forest plot.  Each row is an individual study.  When a dot in each row is to the left of the center line, it means that particular study found a positive benefit of dairy on fat loss.  You can see almost all the studies are to the left of the center line.  The subtotal is the average effect among all those studies, which in this case is -1.11 kilograms.

This analysis also found a benefit of dairy on waist circumference, regardless of whether you were on a diet or not.  The average benefit of dairy on waist circumference was found to be 2.19 cm.

Not only was there a benefit of dairy on fat loss and waist circumference, but there was a benefit on lean mass retention when dieting.  In this forest plot, you can see most of the studies are to the right of the center line, indicating greater lean mass with the consumption of dairy.  The average positive benefit was 0.72 kg.

This was not the only meta-analysis to show a positive effect of dairy on body composition.  In a more recent analysis, 2-4 servings of dairy food, or 20-84 grams per day of whey protein resulted in 1.16 kg greater weight loss and 1.49 kg more fat loss compared to no dairy, although the results tended to disappear when the researchers only looked at studies that involved resistance training (it should be noted that these results were very uncertain given the small number of studies that involved a weight training program).

PUTTING MY MILK WHERE MY MOUTH IS

When I lost 40 lbs of fat for my contest prep, the bulk of my calorie intake came from dairy foods.  I relied heavily on nonfat greek yogurt, milk, and whey protein.

All that dairy certainly did not impair my fat loss, and in fact likely helped.

WHY DO PEOPLE SWEAR BY CUTTING OUT DAIRY?

In spite of all this evidence that dairy is, at worst, neutral in terms of body fat, and in many cases may be beneficial, why do people continue to claim that cutting out dairy gives them fat loss benefits?  Well, let's think about the foods that people end up cutting out when they cut out dairy:

  • Cheese
  • Butter
  • Cream
  • Ice cream
  • Other dairy-based desserts
  • Sugar-sweetened, high calorie yogurt

Basically, by cutting out dairy, you end up eliminating some energy dense, highly palatable foods, which, in turn, leads you to eating less calories.  So the issue is not the dairy...it's the calorie intake.  You could rather simply choose to reduce and eliminate energy dense, highly palatable foods, and still consume dairy products like nonfat greek yogurt, lowfat or nonfat cottage cheese, or whey protein, and have just as much success, if not more success, with fat loss.  You would also be giving yourself more flexibility and a wider variety of dietary choices.

DAIRY...FOR MOST PEOPLE, BUT NOT FOR EVERYBODY

Now, this is not to say that dairy is for everyone.  Obviously, people with lactose intolerance need to limit certain dairy products.  However, even people with lactose intolerance can consume some dairy products, like greek yogurt.  Also, people with a true dairy allergy need to avoid dairy.  Now, note I said a true dairy allergy, diagnosed by an allergist using skin prick tests or an oral food challenge.  I'm not talking about "food intolerances" based on bullshit blood IgG testing, which is not a reliable test.

Or, perhaps dairy upsets your stomach, or you just don't like dairy, and those are fine reasons to reduce or eliminate dairy.  But here are the reasons NOT to avoid dairy:

  1.  If your paleo diet or Whole30 diet or some other dietary strategy says you should
  2.  Because some bullshit diet guru tells you it's "inflammatory" (it's not)
  3.  Some bullshit IgG blood test said you were intolerant to dairy
  4.  Because dairy stimulates insulin
  5.  Because some bullshit diet guru tells you "we're the only animal that consumes another animal's milk" (last time I checked, we're also the only animal that types on a keyboard or drinks beer or flexes shirtless in front of a camera)

The bottom line is, if you're eliminating dairy when you don't really need to, you might be making your fat loss harder, not easier.  So stop ditching the dairy.

And no, I'm not receiving checks from big dairy either.


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the angry nutrition guy

Great article! Just like when I have clients say, I got so fat this weekend from all the carbs. I ask what did you have: they say, pizza, cookies and cake. And them i’m like well all of those things have more fat than carbs. It’s just the combination of the two that lead them to overeat their caloric needs and be in a surplus lol

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