FSU to lead major study of calcium’s impact on weight reduction, bone loss in the decade after menopause

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. Armed with an $840,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the latest in world-class body scanning technology, a Florida State University researcher in the College of Human Sciences soon will begin the largest, longest study to-date on the efficacy of calcium — through dairy products, supplements or both — for weight reduction and bone preservation in overweight or obese postmenopausal Caucasian women.

Along the way, the comprehensive four-year project at FSU will include nutritional outreach efforts to disadvantaged communities and also will take a look at longstanding assumptions about lactose intolerance in African-Americans.

Department of nutrition, food and exercise sciences Professor Jasminka Ilich will spearhead the calcium research targeting Caucasian women who are two to ten years past menopause and classified as overweight or obese based on a body mass index (BMI) of 26 or greater. Results are expected to shed additional light on calcium’s cell-level role in the overall functioning of bone and adipose (fat) tissue in such women.

"While my previous studies show that calcium could be something of a magic bullet, seemingly supporting bone strength, weight maintenance and better body composition, this research will take a closer, longer look at a larger sampling of a specific group," Ilich said.

This time, she’ll use cutting-edge technology to measure total body fat, muscle and bone mineral density. FSU’s College of Human Sciences can boast the latest-model whole body scanner with dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry — make that iDXA (pronounced eye-DEX-uh) — the first machine of its kind at a Florida university and the state’s only one so far dedicated solely to research. Its dual-energy X-rays can distinguish both hard and soft tissues in the body.

Unlike its sometimes cramped predecessors, the bigger, better iDXA at FSU can accommodate all parts of even the largest body in its scanning area and in less than three minutes produce much more precise measurements than ever before. It uses the lowest-possible radiation dose. In fact, more would be absorbed on a flight from New York to San Francisco.

That expanded scanning capacity has become essential given the nation’s expanding girth. Currently, 62 percent of all women ages 20-74 are classified as overweight and about half of those are obese. The problem is exacerbated during the early postmenopausal years as estrogen production ceases and activity levels sometimes decrease, leading to a corresponding drop in the resting metabolic rate.

With FSU’s acquisition of advanced technology for assessing body composition and bone mineral content in women of all sizes, Ilich predicts her new investigation will be the definitive one on calcium’s role in both during the first decade after menopause.

What’s more, for larger women in particular the new scanner may enable the earlier diagnosis of osteopenia and osteoporosis — loss of bone mineral density — a precursor to sometimes life-threatening fractures.

"The bones contain about 99 percent of the body’s calcium, about 1 percent circulates in the blood, and a minute fraction resides in fat cells, where it regulates hormonal actions affecting the formation and degradation of fat, among other functions," Ilich said.

In the forthcoming study, one group of women will consume low-fat dairy products while another will receive calcium supplements. A control group will have the lowest overall dairy intake and will not receive supplements. At present, the average daily recommendation for calcium is 1,200 milligrams; the FSU research will examine the impact of 1,500 milligrams or more a day.

Ilich hopes to begin the initial selection and evaluation of the first round of participants by early summer 2006. All subjects will undergo clinical trials at FSU that include dietary intervention and behavioral modification, with iDXA scans at six-month intervals for one year to measure initial body composition and any subsequent changes.

Study co-investigators will include Associate Professor Jenice Rankins (FSU College of Human Sciences), who will oversee community outreach efforts, and Associate Professor Doris Abood (Human Sciences) and Assistant Professor Mary Gerend (FSU College of Medicine), who will assist with behavioral modification techniques.

Widely recognized for her extensive research on the effects of nutrition and physical activity on bone and body composition, Ilich left the University of Connecticut to join the faculty of FSU’s top-10 ranked College of Human Sciences in January. She earned her Ph.D. from the University of Zagreb (Croatia) and Ohio State University.