Yogurt has been a staple in the health food culture since the 1950s. Yogurt starts as fresh milk or cream that is often first pasteurized, then fermented with various live bacteria cultures and incubated at a specific temperature to encourage bacteria growth.
The bacteria convert the natural sugars in the milk to lactic acid (giving yogurt its tangy taste) and then the yogurt is strained to remove excess liquid and create the desired creamy consistency.
Whether yogurt is a healthy choice depends on the individual and type of yogurt being consumed. There are plenty of yogurts that are high in protein, low in added sugar and free of unnecessary additives, but there are just as many if not more yogurts that have as much sugar as a can of soda and a list of ingredients you would not recognize as food.
10 SURPRISING HEALTH BENEFITS OF YOGURT
- Yogurt can give you flat abs.
Eat 18 ounces a day and you can drop a jeans size. People who ate that much — in conjunction with cutting their total calories — lost 22 percent more weight and 81 percent more belly fat than dieters who skipped the snack, according to research from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. They also retained one-third more calorie-torching lean muscle mass, which can help you maintain weight loss. “Fat around your waist produces the hormone cortisol, which tells your body to accumulate even more belly flab,” says nutrition professor and lead study author Michael Zemel, PhD. When you eat yogurt, the calcium signals your fat cells to pump out less cortisol, making it easier for you to drop pounds, while the amino acids help burn fat.
- Most brands of yogurt contain good-for-you bacteria.
The words “live and active cultures” on the container mean that your yogurt has probiotics, beneficial bugs that live in your digestive tract and help crowd out harmful microorganisms that can cause intestinal infections. (Only a very small number of companies put yogurt through a post-pasteurization process that kills off all bacteria.)
But many varieties now also contain special strains of probiotics meant to help regulate your digestion or strengthen your immune system. The research on them isn’t conclusive, however. “If you suffer from a particular health problem, like bloating or diarrhea, it’s worth trying one of these products for a couple of weeks to see if it helps,” says FITNESS advisory board member Dawn Jackson Blatner, RD. Otherwise, save a few dollars and stick to conventional brands.
- Yogurt is loaded with vitamins.
One serving is a significant source of potassium, phosphorous, riboflavin, iodine, zinc, and vitamin B5 (pantothenic acid). Yogurt also contains B12, which maintains red blood cells and helps keep your nervous system functioning properly. “Vitamin B12 is found mostly in animal products, such as chicken and fish, so strict vegetarians can easily fall short,” says Jackie Newgent, RD, a FITNESS advisory board member and author of Big Green Cookbook. Eating more yogurt can help close the nutrient gap: An eight-ounce serving contains 1.4 micrograms of the vitamin, about 60 percent of what adult women need daily.
- A cup of yogurt a day can help you recover faster after a workout.
With the right ratio of protein to carbohydrates, yogurt, particularly high-protein Greek yogurt, makes an excellent post-sweat-session snack. “The perfect time to grab a container is within 60 minutes of exercise,” says Keri Gans, RD, a nutritionist in New York City. The protein provides the amino acids your muscles need to repair themselves, Gans explains, and the carbohydrates replace your muscles’ energy stores, which are depleted after a hard workout. It’s a bonus if you drink a bottle of water along with it: The protein in yogurt may also help increase the amount of water absorbed by the intestines, improving hydration.
- Not all yogurt is equal when it comes to calcium and vitamin D.
Since it naturally contains calcium, you’d think the amount would be the same no matter which yogurt you pick. Wrong. “The levels can vary widely from brand to brand, so you really need to check the label,” Newgent says. How much is in a container depends on processing. For instance, fruit yogurt tends to have less calcium than plain because the sugar and fruit take up precious space in the container. “Vitamin D isn’t naturally in yogurt, but because it helps boost calcium absorption, most companies add it,” Newgent explains. Reach for brands like Stonyfield Farms Fat Free Smooth and Creamy and Yoplait Light Thick & Creamy, which contain at least 20 percent of your daily value for both nutrients.
- Yogurt may prevent high blood pressure.
Every day 70 percent of us consume more than twice the recommended amount of salt; over time that can lead to hypertension and kidney and heart disease. The potassium in yogurt, almost 600 milligrams per eight ounces, may help flush some of the excess sodium out of your body. In fact, adults in a study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition who ate the most low-fat dairy — two or more servings daily — were 54 percent less likely to develop high blood pressure than those who ate the least.
- A daily serving of yogurt keeps colds away.
Dig into four ounces each day and you may find yourself sniffle-free in the months ahead, according to a study at the University of Vienna. Women eating this amount had much stronger and more active T cells, which battle illness and infection, than they did before they started consuming it. “The healthy bacteria in yogurt help send signals to the immune-boosting cells in your body to power up and fight off harmful bugs,” says lead study author Alexa Meyer, PhD, a nutrition researcher at the university. Allergy sufferers, who typically have low levels of certain T cells, may also find relief by adding yogurt to their diets. In a study in the Journal of Nutrition, people who ate seven ounces a day had fewer symptoms than those who opted for none at all.
- Yogurt can help your smile.
Despite its sugar content, yogurt doesn’t cause cavities. When scientists at Marmara University in Turkey tested low-fat, light, and fruit flavors, they found that none of them eroded tooth enamel, the main cause of decay. The lactic acid in yogurt appears to give your gums protection as well. People who eat at least two ounces a day have a 60 percent lower risk of acquiring severe periodontal disease than those who skip it.
- Raw doesn’t mean better.
Virtually all the yogurt in your grocery store has been pasteurized — that is, exposed to high temperatures to kill any harmful pathogens. Raw-dairy fans claim that unpasteurized milk, yogurt, and cheese are better for you because they contain more health-boosting bacteria, but pasteurization doesn’t destroy beneficial probiotics, Newgent explains. Plus, studies show that those who eat raw yogurt don’t have stronger immune or digestive systems than people who stick to the pasteurized stuff. And raw-dairy products carry a risk of food poisoning. “E. coli and salmonella are two of the pathogens that can lurk in these foods and end up in your body,” Newgent says.
- Yogurt is a high-protein food.
Yogurt can be an excellent source of protein, but “one variety may contain more than double the protein of another,” Blatner says. Greek yogurt, which is strained to make it thicker, has up to 20 grams of protein per container; traditional yogurt may have as few as five grams. If you’re eating it for the protein, look for brands that provide at least eight to 10 grams per serving.
What to Look For in a Yogurt
Forget the fancy promises. To find a healthy yogurt that’s low in calories, fat, and sugar, follow as many of these guidelines as you can.
Per 6-ounce serving:
Calories: 100 to 150 (if you’re snacking, stick to the lower end)
Fat: 3.5 grams or less (low-fat or nonfat)
Saturated fat: 2 grams or less
Protein: at least 8 to 10 grams
Sugar: 20 grams or less
Calcium: at least 20 percent of the daily value
Vitamin D: at least 20 percent of the daily value
TYPES OF YOGURT
Yogurt has several common spellings depending on the area of the world. Yogurt, yogourt, yoghurt and yoghourt are all correct.
bowl of yogurt
Yogurt products come in a wide variety of flavors, forms and textures. How good a yogurt is for you depends on the type of yogurt being consumed.Low fat or non-fat
Low-fat yogurt, also labeled reduced fat yogurt, is made with 2% milk. Non-fat yogurt is made with 0% or skim milk.
Greek yogurt is thicker and creamier than regular yogurt. It can withstand heat better than regular yogurt and is often used in Mediterranean-style cooking and dips.
Greek yogurt is made by further straining regular yogurt, removing the liquid whey and resulting in a higher protein content due to its thicker concentration.
However, this further straining decreases the calcium content. Greek yogurt is available in full fat, reduced or low fat and non-fat or 0%.
Similar to Greek yogurt, skyr (pronounced skeer) is an Icelandic-style yogurt that is dense, creamy and high in protein. Compared to regular yogurt, skyr requires 4 times the amount of milk to make and contains 2-3 times more protein.
Even with the live and active cultures, do not assume that a frozen yogurt is a healthy choice. Many frozen yogurts have just as much sugar per serving as the ice cream sitting next to it in the freezer section
Eating yogurt is one of the most common ways to consume the healthy bacteria beneficial to the gut known as probiotics. Probiotics are effective in regulating the digestive system and decreasing gas, diarrhea, constipation and bloating.
Some research has suggested that probiotics can boost the immune system, help with weight management and reduce the risk of cancer.1 Consuming yogurt and other probiotic foods may even enhance absorption of vitamins and minerals.
The two most common bacteria used to ferment milk into yogurt are Lactobacillus bulgaricus and Streptococcus thermophiles, but many yogurts contain additional bacteria strains.
To help consumers identify yogurts with live and active cultures, the National Yogurt Association has implemented the LAC (Life & Active Cultures) seal, found on the product container. In most cases, the number of live bacteria declines the longer the product sits on the shelf.
Dairy products are one of the best dietary sources of calcium in terms of bioavailability. Calcium plays a primary role in the development and maintenance of healthy bones and teeth and is also important for blood clotting, wound healing and maintaining normal blood pressure. Always try to pair calcium-rich foods with a source of vitamin D, as vitamin D helps the small intestine to absorb calcium.
Most yogurts also contain varying amount of vitamins B-6 and B-12, riboflavin, potassium and magnesium.
Massive amounts of sugar and artificial sweeteners
On its own, yogurt is a low calorie, high nutrient food packed with protein. However, many manufacturers load their yogurts with sugar, artificial sweeteners and unrecognizable ingredients.
Always read the ingredients label and avoid heavily processed foods as much as possible. Manufacturers can stick whatever they want on a package to make it look healthy, but they cannot hide the actual ingredients. All yogurts will contain some natural sugars, but look for a yogurt with under 10 grams of sugar per serving.
Packaged products like cereals and bars claiming to be “made with real yogurt” contain only a small amount of yogurt powder, which is heat-treated, killing the beneficial bacteria that yogurt is known for.
When yogurt is heated to 120 degrees F, the beneficial bacteria are killed and no longer of benefit.2 The same goes for yogurt-covered raisins, pretzels, granola, etc. All contain yogurt “coatings” made from a combination of sugar, oil, whey and yogurt powder.
Safe for lactose intolerance?
People who experience discomfort, bloating or gas after consuming liquid milk or ice cream can often tolerate yogurt without symptoms. The lactose content in yogurt is very low, and the bacteria help the digestion process.
Try a small amount of yogurt (1/4 cup) first to see how your body reacts. Because many people who are lactose intolerant are calcium deficient, yogurt can be a very important component of their diet.
How to incorporate more yogurt into your diet
Quick tips from a registered dietitian:
yogurt with strawberries and blueberries
Avoid flavored yogurts with heaps of sugar. Instead, sweeten plain yogurt yourself with fruit.
Start with plain, unsweetened yogurt and sweeten it yourself with fruit, a small amount of pure maple syrup or honey
Avoid most pre-made fruit and yogurt parfaits, which have tons of unnecessary added sugars
When baking, substitute the butter or oil in the recipe with plain or lightly sweetened yogurt
Use plain Greek yogurt to top your baked potato or tacos. Plain, unsweetened yogurt tastes just like sour cream but with twice the protein!
Look for a yogurt that has more grams of protein per serving than sugar.