Calcium Adds to Health, Not Weight

By Sally Squires
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 26, 2006; 12:00 AM

If you're looking for some ways to hold the line on extra pounds this holiday season, consider adding mineral water, skim milk or other calcium-rich food and drink to your diet.

Calcium is good for your bones and your blood pressure, and there is growing evidence that it could help a little with weight control, especially for women.

Some of the latest evidence comes from a retrospective study of nearly 11,000 middle-aged men and women conducted at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle. Women who got 500 milligrams or more of calcium daily--equal to drinking about two cups of skim milk --gained about 10 pounds over a decade. Compare that to the more than 15 pounds gained by women who consumed less calcium daily.

While calories consumed, exercise and metabolism account for 97 percent of the fluctuations in body weight, calcium "explains about a three percent variability of body weight in U.S. adults," says Robert P. Heaney, who studies the effects of calcium at Creighton University in Nebraska. "Three percent isn't bad."

With that knowledge, welcome to the final week of the 2006 Lean Plate Club Holiday Challenge. This week's food goal is to boost calcium intake and to keep active by walking 10 minutes three times daily. The Holiday Challenge isn't a diet. It's simply designed help you maintain your weight during the holidays. Holding your weight steady puts you a step ahead of the curve when 2007 arrives since research suggests that overweight and obese adults add an average of five pounds during the holidays. And they don't take it off in the spring. (See the successes--and the struggles--of three Lean Plate Club members taking the challenge in their video blogs at

Whether calcium will help men with their waistlines is less certain. Neither the Hutchinson Center study nor another recent report by a team of scientists at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine and the Harvard School of Public Health found any weight benefits of boosting calcium in men.

But both men and women can reap other health benefits, namely better blood pressure and stronger bones. Besides, most U.S. adults fall short of the recommended calcium consumption, according to the latest federal health surveys. The Institute of Medicine's Food and Nutrition Board advises consuming 1,000 milligrams of calcium daily for men and women 50 and younger; 1,200 milligrams for those 51 and older. But the federal government's 1999 to 2002 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey found that 73 percent of adults 20 and older get less than the adequate intake.

Dairy products are a prime source of calcium. For that reason, the 2005 U.S. Dietary Guidelines recommends drinking three cups daily of skim or low-fat milk or eating equivalent amounts of non-fat or low-fat cheese (about three ounces) or yogurt (about three cups).

But there are plenty of other ways to boost calcium, particularly for those who may not be able to eat or drink dairy products because of lactose intolerance. Other options include drinking calcium-fortified soy milk and juice, which rival the calcium content of milk. There also are plenty of calcium-fortified cereals, snack bars and bread.

Or you can sip bottled mineral water. Creighton's Heaney reported earlier this year that mineral water contains up to 108 milligrams of calcium per cup. He found that the calcium in mineral water is just as well absorbed by the body as that from other food and drink. An added benefit: no calories. Heaney studied Contrex, Sanfaustino, Ferrarelle and San Gemini mineral water. Most are imported, but check the nutrition facts labels of bottled waters to see if your favorite also contains calcium.

Other foods rich in calcium include tofu, canned salmon (which has small, soft bones) and sesame seeds. Just an ounce of sesame seeds contains nearly the amount of calcium in a cup of skim milk--although it also has about twice the calories.

Finally, to enjoy the food that you eat this holiday more while still eating fewer calories, slow down. Popular opinion has long held that savoring food instead of gobbling it could help cut the calories consumed. But there's been little scientific evidence to back up that claim.

In November, scientists at the University of Rhode Island reported that women who paused briefly between bites and chewed well ate about 80 fewer calories per meal than those who ate fast. They also felt greater satiety after eating--a feeling that lasted an hour after the meal.

No Web chat or e-mail newsletter this week. They will return on Jan. 2. In the meantime, view and comment on the updated video blogs from Lean Plate Club members at E-mail me anytime at

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