Can Dairy Prevent Diabetes? Help with Weight Loss?

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Last week, we explored some of the potential health benefits of both dairy-based and soy-based yogurt. But there’s more about dairy that we haven’t touched upon yet. For example, there’s evidence linking a higher intake of low-fat dairy foods to a lower risk of Type 2 diabetes in women. You might be thinking, “Well, I already have diabetes—what does this have to do with me?” I thought it was worthwhile to mention this study because, if you have Type 2 diabetes, you likely have family members who are at risk for getting diabetes. Here’s your chance to spread the word and help them do what they can to prevent its onset.

Back to the study, which was published in the July 2006 issue of Diabetes Care. This research came out of the renowned Women’s Health Study, a large, randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trial. The purpose of this clinical trial was to look at the effect of aspirin and vitamin E on the prevention of cardiovascular disease (heart disease and stroke) and cancer among almost 40,000 female health-care professionals who did not already have heart disease, cancer, or diabetes at the beginning of the trial. The researchers followed these women for 10 years. One aspect of this clinical trial was to document the women’s food intake, using what are called food frequency questionnaires.

Over the 10 years, about 1,600 women developed Type 2 diabetes. The researchers found that the women who consumed higher amounts of low-fat dairy products (which included skim milk, low-fat milk, yogurt, and cottage cheese) were less likely to develop Type 2 diabetes, regardless of factors such as body-mass index, physical activity, family history, and alcohol intake.

What’s so special about dairy? Possibly several factors. Milk proteins are less likely to cause a spike in insulin release. Dairy foods tend to have a fairly low glycemic load. It’s also possible that other components of dairy foods, such as magnesium, calcium, and lactose have beneficial effects. No one knows for sure at this time.

The link between eating dairy foods and losing weight has been in the headlines over the past few years. Much of this stems from research conducted in 2000 by a nutrition professor at the University of Tennessee named of Michael Zemel. He found that people who followed a lower-calorie diet and consumed three servings of low-fat or fat-free dairy foods a day lost more weight than those on a lower-calorie diet alone. However, there were only 46 people in his studies, and since then, other studies have failed to show that eating dairy foods leads to weight loss. Not surprisingly, the dairy industry has made a big deal about Zemel’s studies, hoping that more people will be encouraged to gulp down more milk and cheese.

What’s the bottom line? What we do know is that milk and yogurt are excellent sources of calcium. Milk is also fortified with vitamin D, another important nutrient needed for bone health. (By the way, vitamin D may also protect against diabetes.) In addition, dairy foods provide protein. However, some people can’t tolerate dairy foods due to lactose intolerance or milk allergy. Others, for various reasons, choose not to consume dairy foods. As is typically the case when it comes to nutrition research, we need to learn more about these foods. In the meantime, if you’re a milk drinker, a yogurt eater, or a cheese lover, make sure you’re choosing nonfat or low-fat versions to limit your saturated fat intake and keep your heart healthy. Be sure to count the carbs in milk and yogurt. And if you want to see if eating dairy helps you lose weight, make sure you’re keeping an eye on portion size.

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