Fat levels and body composition

Dairy foods are often encouraged as ideal foods to help meet sports nutrition goals, however, many athletes may struggle to meet the recommended 2.5–4 serves1 of dairy each day.

Dairy foods do not need to be avoided when trying to reduce body fat levels. Although some dairy foods contain fat and therefore may be higher in kilojoules than other foods, it is important to note fats are an essential macronutrient and have numerous important roles in the body so should not be excluded from the diet. For example, fats aid with the absorption of fat soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K; assist with fullness (satiety) after meals and provide essential fatty acids. In addition, fat also provides an important source of energy for low intensity, long duration training and competition.

Some dairy foods are more nutritious than others and the overall quality of the food is an important consideration. For example, choosing dairy that has a high protein content and is dense with other nutrients, such yoghurt, cheeses and milk can benefit the athlete by providing protein for muscle growth and repair, calcium for strong bones and teeth, carbohydrate for refuelling and essential fats.

1. Australian Government Department of Health, Milk, yoghurt, cheese and/or their alternatives

  • Regular-fat dairy foods

    Although regular-fat dairy has a higher level of saturated fat compared to low-fat and fat-free dairy, research now shows that not all saturated fats are equal. The saturated fats in regular-fat dairy products don't have the same negative effect on heart disease risk as saturated fats found in other foods such as fatty meats, packaged sweets, pastries and takeaway foods.

    Although regular-fat dairy foods have more energy (kilojoules) per serve compared to reduced-fat or fat-free there is a growing body of evidence that the higher-fat food is more filling, resulting in a reduced inclination to eat other unhealthy alternative options, such as highly processed commercial foods, therefore reducing overeating and overconsumption of energy later on in the day. This is sometimes referred to as “the dairy paradox."
  • Body fat and muscle

    Although the overall goal of weight loss for many athletes is specifically fat loss, unless adequate protein is being eaten it is likely that lean muscle tissue will be lost along side the fat mass. This can hinder performance and recovery for the athlete. To avoid this, research has shown that athletes following an energy restricted diet who continue to eat dairy foods have a greater increase in fat loss as well as less loss (and even gains) in lean muscle mass.2

    Studies have also shown that the protein from dairy foods can help build and maintain muscle. Milk contains a high concentration of the branched chain amino acid leucine, which has been specifically shown to stimulate muscle building machinery.3

    2. Abargouei A , et al. Effect of dairy consumption on weight and body composition in adults: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled clinical trials. International Journal of Obesity 2012 Dec;36(12):1485-93
    3. Dairy Australia, Sports Nutrition, http://www.nutritionaustralia.org/national/resource/sports-nutrition, 2009