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Optimizing Body Composition During Weight Loss: The Role of Milk Products

The role of milk products in weight loss has been controversial due to inconsistencies in study findings. However, results from recent studies, including a meta-analysis, suggest that including milk products as part of a weight-loss diet leads to greater reductions in weight and importantly greater reductions in fat mass, and preservation or gains in lean mass (skeletal muscle and bone).

Stuart M. Phillips Stuart M. Phillips, PhD

Professor, Department of Kinesiology—Exercise Metabolism Research Group, Associate Member, Faculty of Health Sciences, McMaster University


  • On an energy-restricted diet, nutrient-rich milk products (e.g., milk, yogurt and cheese) should not be restricted.
  • Inclusion of milk products during weight loss promotes favourable body composition:
    • Greater reductions in weight and fat mass
    • Preservation or gains in lean mass such as muscle and bone.
  • Several key dairy constituents—i.e., calcium, protein, fat, and lactose—may be involved in body weight regulation.

Optimal body composition

The optimum pattern of weight loss is characterized by a high ratio of lean:fat tissue mass which means reductions in fat mass while preserving lean mass (muscle and bone).1,2 Muscle mass is important as it contributes to the resting metabolic rate, glycemic control, and lipid oxidation. It may also help in weight loss maintenance.1

A recent study of healthy, premenopausal, overweight or obese women (n=90) allocated to daily exercise and randomized to one of three hypoenergetic diet groups:high protein / high dairy, adequate protein / medium dairy, and adequate protein / low dairy showed that while all women lost weight and fat, those consuming high protein / high dairy actually gained lean tissue.2

Meta-analysis of RCTs

These conclusions are corroborated by a recent meta-analysis of randomized, controlled trials that demonstrated that the inclusion of milk products in energy-restricted weight-loss diets has a significant beneficial impact on weight, body fat mass, lean mass and waist circumference compared with usual weight-loss diets.

Compared with controls, diets that included higher intakes of dairy resulted in:3

  • 1.29 kg greater weight loss (95% CI: –1.98, –0.6, p<0.001)
  • 1.11 kg greater reduction in body fat mass (95% CI: –1.75, –0.47, p=0.001)
  • 0.72 kg gain in lean mass (95% CI: 0.12, 1.32, p=0.02), and
  • 2.43 cm further reduction in waist circumference (95% CI: –3.42, –1.44, p<0.001).

Potential mechanisms of action

Several key dairy constituents appear to be involved in body weight regulation (see table). The majority of the evidence to date indicates a role for calcium in adipocyte lipid metabolism, lipogenesis and lipolysis, fat oxidation and fat absorption. In addition, other dairy components such as lactose, protein and their peptide derivatives, and fat may affect body weight through the regulation of food intake and appetite.4


  1. Phillips SM and Zemel MB. Effect of protein, dairy components and energy balance in optimizing body composition. In:Maughan RJ, Burke LM (Eds): Sports Nutrition: More than Just Calories—Triggers for Adaptation. Nestlé Nutr Inst Workshop Ser, 2011;69:97-113.
  2. Josse AR et al. 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 2011:1-9; Online: doi:10.3945/jn.111.141028.
  3. Abargouei AS et al. Effect of dairy consumption on weight and body composition in adults: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled clinical trials. Int J Obesity 2012:1-9; Online: doi:10.1038/ijo.2011.269.
  4. Dougkas A et al. Associations between dairy consumption and body weight: a review of the evidence and underlying mechanisms. Nutr Res Rev 2011:1-24; Online: doi:10.1017/S09544241000034x.

Keywords: Healthy weight , weight loss

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