Epidemiological evidence suggests that dietary calcium and vitamin D intake are inversely related to incidence of colon cancer. Previous studies have demonstrated that supplementation of the diet with calcium in the form of calcium tablets or low-fat dairy foods alters colonic epithelial cell proliferation from a higher- to a lower-risk pattern. The present study compared relative effects of administration of calcium carbonate at approximately 900 mg/day (calcium) with those of a low-fat dairy food diet providing about the same amount of calcium (dairy) in a cross-over "head-to-head" study of 40 subjects at risk for colonic neoplasia. Dietary intake of macronutrients was similar in the two study periods, except for a slight increase in protein intake during dairy calcium supplementation. Rectal epithelial cell proliferation was studied in flat endoscopically normal-appearing mucosa at baseline and at the end of each of the two study periods and showed a significant reduction in epithelial crypt cell labeling index from 12.5% to 9.1% (calcium) or 9.3% (dairy) as well as in proliferating cells in the upper 40% of the crypt from 0.09 to 0.03 in the calcium- and low-fat dairy-supplemented intervention groups. No significant changes in two epithelial cell differentiation markers, cytokeratin AE1 and acidic mucins, were found. Furthermore, there were no differences in epithelial cell apoptosis or expression of the proapoptotic gene product BAK. These data indicate that increased dietary calcium given as supplements or in the diet in low-fat dairy foods lowers epithelial cell proliferation indexes from a higher- to a lower-risk pattern. Because supplemental calcium has been shown to reduce the recurrence of colonic adenomatous polyps in patients at increased risk for colonic neoplasia, our data suggest that supplemental low-fat dairy foods may also be effective.