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KNOXVILLE — Higher calcium intake has been associated with lower body fat in children in a study by two University of Tennessee nutritionists.

Drs. Betty Ruth Carruth and Jean Skinner documented eating habits and physical development of 53 youngsters in Knoxville, Tenn., over a three-year period. The study began when the children were two years of age. Trained interviewers conducted in-home interviews with parents and measured height, weight and body composition of each child at six-month intervals.

The children whose calcium intake was highest had the lowest levels of body fat, compared to others in the group whose calcium intake was lower. The children ate a variety of dairy foods, including yogurt, cheese and ice cream as well as milk.

The research appeared in the April issue of the International Journal of Obesity.

Carruth said other studies of adult men and women and animals have suggested that higher calcium intake depresses fat synthesis and facilitates the conversion of fat to energy.

A recent study by Dr. Michael Zemel, also of the University of Tennessee, indicated a connection between higher levels of dietary calcium and reduced body fat in animal and human subjects.

Concern over childhood obesity has increased over the past 30 years. According to the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, 12 percent to 14 percent of children between the ages of six and 18 are overweight.

Carruth said that unfortunately parents who are trying to reduce fat in their children’s diet may limit dairy products, which are the most nutritionally dense source of calcium.

“Some of the mothers we interviewed had been told by their pediatricians that milk was not important after the age of two,” Carruth said. “Our study shows that it-s the intake of calcium over time that is so important in terms of lower body fat.”

The study was funded by Gerber Products and the University of Tennessee Agricultural Experiment Station.