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KNOXVILLE — Lowfat dairy foods such as skim milk, yogurt and cheese may help reduce growth of body fat, especially in women, a University of Tennessee study shows.

The study directed by Dr. Michael Zemel, head of UT-Knoxville’s nutrition department, shows that calcium in lowfat dairy foods triggers a hormonal response that inhibits the body’s production of fat cells and boosts breakdown of fat.

“We have found that a diet rich in lowfat dairy foods affects the way human fat cells do their job,” Zemel said. “This is good news for all Americans, especially the 97 million who are overweight and struggling to lose extra pounds.”

Working with Zemel on the study were his wife, Dr. Paula Zemel, a UT-Knoxville associate professor of nutrition; Dr. Betty Greer, associate professor of nutrition for UT’s Agricultural Extension; and Dr. Hang Shi, a UT-Knoxville Ph.D. candidate in nutrition.

The study analyzed data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, which tracks eating habits of thousands of U.S. residents, and found that women who consumed the most lowfat dairy products were 80 percent less likely to be obese.

It also demonstrated how calcium from dairy products caused sharp reduction in human fat cells grown from tissue cultures.

The research project also placed four groups of mice on diets equal in calories, protein and fat, but with varied amounts of lowfat dairy foods.

Mice on a diet with half its calories from lowfat milk had a 39 percent body fat reduction, while those with no dairy foods had a 24 percent increase in fat.

Zemel said calcium from dairy foods worked better than a calcium supplement alone, but he is not sure why. High fat dairy foods do not provide the same benefits because of the additional fat calories in those foods, he said.

Zemel presented his findings recently at the North American Association for the Study of Obesity (NAASO) Annual Meeting in Charleston, S.C.

The National Dairy Council funded the study. Council Vice President Jean Ragalie said dieters should think twice before cutting milk, yogurt and cheese when trying to lose weight.

“We-ve known for some time that lowfat dairy foods may help reduce the risk of osteoporosis, high blood pressure and possibly even colon cancer,” Ragalie said. “Now we can add to that list the important role lowfat dairy plays in a healthy weight loss plan.”