Robert Rowan, M.D. talks about the countless times he’s been told by his patients that they have restricted their caloric intake, but just could not lose weight. It was clear to him that there are metabolic factors that enable one person to burn off calories at a faster clip than others. He says that he always thought that exercise was one leading difference, and the other was the particular foods. But he finally concluded that there were so many variables that it was difficult to find out which diet each patient should use.
We know that prior to the 20th century, very few people were obese. We also know the types of foods most of them were eating (mostly natural foods grown in the garden or on the farm).
For our ancestors, there was abundant food in summer and less in winter. But unlike us, they could not ship it in from a far off growing area or preserve it through refining. So winter was a lot tougher for them. Fortunately, our bodies were created with some mechanisms to accommodate seasons of plenty (summer and fall). During these times, our metabolism speeds up and we burn more calories. Then, as we move into the lean seasons (winter and spring), our metabolism slows down and we spare energy for survival.
It’s well accepted among the medical community that fat storage does fit into the model of surviving lean times. In today’s world, calories are abundant during all four seasons. But if this model is correct, why aren’t we burning off the extra calories in these times of abundance?
Believe it or not, the answer is quite simple. Could the number of calories you burn be determined by how much calcium you’re ingesting?
Calcium intake in America is woefully deficient. The RDA was recently increased from 800 mg to 1,200 mg if you are over 50. Still higher intakes (1,500 mg) have been recommended if you’re over 65 by a NIH consensus panel on calcium intake.
Major studies have shown that older men and women have mean calcium intakes of only 596 and 475 mg respectively! Only 66-75% of younger adult women reach even the 800 mg level! It’s estimated that our ancestors ate 2,000-3,000 mg of calcium daily, three to five times the daily intake of American adults today.
Well, it’s one thing to say we’re deficient in calcium, but it’s a real leap of faith to jump from fats, carbs, and total calories to calcium. So what’s the evidence?
Does extra calcium really speed weight loss for us? Absolutely! One study showed that only two cups of yogurt added to the diets of overweight patients (with no other changes in diet or exercise) caused an average loss of 10.56 pounds in one year. And here are the results of three other studies:
Young women who had the highest intakes of calcium lost the most weight and body fat on weight control programs … regardless of exercise level.
Only 1,000 mg of additional calcium in your diet can result in a 17.6-pound difference in body weight.
- Higher levels of calcium may prevent fat storage, and more calcium may raise metabolism, thus, burning more calories.
Not convinced? Look at this:
- Each 300 mg increment in regular calcium intake is associated with approximately 2.2 pounds less body fat in children and 5.5-6.6 pounds lower body weight in adults. Calcium can reduce weight substantially, perhaps by as much as 70%.
- Women at midlife with low calcium intake gain about 1-2.5 pounds per year. In contrast, those women taking the RDA amount of calcium show a slight negative weight gain each year.
- If you’re trying to lose weight on a calorie-restricted diet, increasing calcium will accelerate your loss of weight and body fat stores.
Dr. Robert P. Heany reported in the American Society for Nutritional Services, “The data suggest that the effect of calcium deficiency on obesity 85 is likely to be as large as, or larger than, the corresponding effect on osteoporosis prevalence…. The data presented in this analysis suggest that the prevalence of obesity in women could be reduced by 60-80% by ensuring (adequate) calcium intakes.”
The evidence supporting calcium as a miracle weight-loss nutrient is truly amazing. But what is it about calcium that causes it to shed the pounds? The answer lies in a seeming paradox. The more calcium you have in your diet, the less you have in your cells. Calcium is present only in the tiniest amounts inside your cells (intracellular) and soft tissues — 10,000 times less than outside your cells. But you have a tremendous amount in your bones and teeth.
On the other hand, calcium’s counterpart, magnesium, is abundant inside your cells and soft tissues. If you don’t take enough magnesium, calcium’s natural antagonist, it allows excess calcium to migrate into your cells (where the magnesium should be). Inside your cells, calcium wreaks havoc. It blocks magnesium-dependent, energy-producing, and metabolic enzymes. It’s a virtual poison to your mitochondria (your energy furnaces). Your cells’ energy production becomes impaired leading to degenerative diseases and blocked energy production.
We have uncontested evidence that certain diseases are characterized by elevated intracellular calcium and deficient intracellular magnesium. These include Type-2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome (insulin resistance), hypertension, heart disease, and others. Obesity is one of the metabolic syndrome diseases (these include Syndrome X).
Respected researchers have discovered that Syndrome X has an underlying excess of intracellular calcium. The high intracellular calcium binds and inactivates your enzymes. It sends out messages to constrict, raising blood pressure, while magnesium does the opposite — it relaxes. Dr. Resnick stated that the more intracellular calcium and less magnesium measured, the more severe the manifestations of problems. One of the most obvious manifestations of the imbalance is abdominal fat.
Still not convinced? Take a look at this: A recent study, published in JAMA, has shown an exciting effect of higher calcium intake and insulin resistance (metabolic syndrome) in young adults. This was a prospective study (the best kind) on 3,157, aged 18-30 years old. Higher dairy product consumption was associated with less insulin resistance, including less obesity, lower blood pressure, lower blood sugar, and lower blood fats. However, the results were seen only in overweight people, not the leaner population. The researchers estimated that each additional serving of dairy products lowered the risk of metabolic syndrome by 21%.
Most people know that dairy is one of our main sources of dietary calcium. Milk products definitely have benefit in this area. However, we need to be cautious about milk. Cow’s milk is high in acid-producing phosphorus and protein; and low in magnesium. Pasteurized milk delivers denatured protein. If raw-milk products are available, they are a far better alternative. Dairy should absolutely be organic!
Other natural dietary sources of calcium are abundant in raw-soaked nuts, seeds, and vegetables. These keep your calcium and magnesium consumption very high. It prevents any imbalances from occurring and it keeps your metabolism high.
In the winter, when vegetables are scarce and vitamin D levels are low (from a lack of sunshine), our calcium in-take and absorption (thanks to vitamin D) are a lot lower. Our body interprets the lack of calcium as a sign that good food isn’t available. So it slows down your metabolism and energy production to keep you from starving.
In the “real world,” this would be to our advantage. But in our artificial world of year-round food transportation, it’s a major problem. The low intake and absorption of calcium signal your body to enter a “hibernation” mode, slowing down your metabolism for the winter food shortage. However, your calorie consumption remains high all year. With the calcium metabolic alterations, there’s just no way for you to burn it off. Even calorie restriction without adequate calcium will result in further energy conservation by your body.
Action to Take: (1) Increase fruit and vegetables, which are loaded with both calcium and magnesium, and reduce your protein intake (high protein diets encourage calcium excretion). I strongly prefer a calcium-loaded diet to supplements. Remember, our ancestor’s intake of an estimated 2,000-3,000 mg calcium daily was not accomplished with pills.
(2) If you do want help from supplements, calcium citrate or lactate (calcium lactate has nothing to do with the lactose of dairy) are preferable. But make sure that you balance calcium with magnesium (citrate, glycinate, or lactate) at least 2:1 and preferably 3:2. Calcium supplementation is usually very safe. In fact, one report stated that calcium intakes up to at least 2,500 mg daily are safe for virtually all patients. Increasing your calcium in-take is an effective was to lose inches and pounds without draconian calorie restriction.
Here are two final, but very important tidbits. (1) If you have hypertension that’s not sensitive to salt, too much calcium could make your blood pressure worse. So talk to your doctor before adding extra calcium via supplements. (2) The science strongly suggests that higher calcium will be far more effective at weight loss if your food consumption is below the average for your body mass. In other words, if you’re overeating, please don’t expect any nutritional intervention to override your caloric abuse.