For many years, eating yogurt has been associated with good health. The creamy dairy food has long been a staple of Mediterranean, Indian, and French diets. In fact, according to Mireille Guilliano, author of the best-selling French Women Don't Get Fat, yogurt is one of the French secrets to weight control.
Americans love their yogurt just as much as the French, although we don't necessarily think of it as diet food. We gobbled up $2.5 billion worth last year. Stroll down the yogurt aisle at your supermarket and you'll see a dizzying array of choices: trendy new flavors, additives ranging from granola to candy, fat-free and sugar-free types, creamy blended varieties, drinkable and squeezable yogurts, and fiber-enriched and probiotic options.
No wonder we love it, in all its forms. Yogurt is portable, convenient, nutritious, and delicious, and works for breakfast, dessert, or a snack.
Yogurt and Weight Loss
In her book, Guiliano touts yogurt as the ultimate way to manage hunger.
"Yogurt is the perfect food because it is high in calcium, [and] has carbs, protein and fat, which are what you need in every meal," she tells WebMD.
She says most French women eat one or two yogurts a day, and often enjoy it for breakfast -- especially after an evening of overindulgence, to help balance out the calories.
Health professionals have long advocated dairy products and other calcium-rich foods for helping to keep bones and teeth strong and preventing osteoporosis. And over the past few years, several studies have shown that eating low-fat dairy may enhance weight loss as well.
A study published in the April 2005 International Journal of Obesity looked at obese adults who cut 500 calories a day while consuming three daily servings of low-fat yogurt. It found that they lost significant amounts of fat, especially around the waist, while maintaining lean muscle tissue. The three-yogurts-a-day group lost 22% more weight, 61% more body fat, and 81% more stomach fat than a comparison group who ate just one serving of yogurt daily.
The study's author, Michael Zemel, suggests that eating dairy and getting plenty of calcium maintains bone density and muscle mass while increasing fat loss.
"Here we have one more clinical trial that demonstrates how including dairy in your diet can help those who are trying to take pounds off and those who don't want to gain weight," Zemel says. "We use yogurt because it is a convenient form of dairy and most people enjoy it."
Still, it's important to remember that not all yogurts are created equal. Some have levels of fat and sugar that can undo any weight loss benefits.
One cup of nonfat yogurt contains 100 calories, 300 milligrams calcium, 10 grams of protein and no fat. Some brands, though, are also loaded with sugar, fat and artificial ingredients. To select the most nutritious yogurt, read the label, and zero in on the fat, sugar, and calorie content per serving.
More Health Benefits
Yogurt is an excellent source of calcium, protein and B vitamins, but its health benefits go beyond that, experts say.
"It is a wonderful food that helps the immune system and overall health," says Tufts University researcher Miriam Nelson, PhD.
Eating yogurt with live cultures adds "good" bacteria to your intestinal tract, and promotes a healthy environment to help fight off "bad" bacteria. People taking antibiotics can benefit from eating fermented foods like yogurt, which helps replace the friendly bacteria that get wiped out by the drugs, Nelson says.
"I would recommend organic yogurts, such as Stonyfield Farm and Brown Cow," Nelson says, "because while some products indicate live cultures, there may be only a few, whereas the organic variety tends to have the highest percentage of good bacteria."
Also available are specially formulated "cultured dairy supplement drinks," like Dannon's Actimel -- concentrated, drinkable yogurts designed to help restore healthy bacteria.
Acidophilus milk, kefir, miso, tamari, are other examples of "probiotic" or fermented foods that help add healthy bacteria. To get their benefits, you need to consume a steady diet of these foods.
Yogurt has another benefit. The live cultures that are used to make yogurt are helpful in breaking down lactose (milk sugar) and make it easier to digest -- even for people who are lactose-sensitive. And those looking to get more soy products into their diets can find an easy solution with soy yogurt. It has virtually no fat and plenty of soy protein, which research has shown may help lower cholesterol levels. However, soy yogurt contains less calcium, protein, and B vitamins than yogurt made with milk.
Ways to Add More Yogurt to Your Diet
One of the easiest and healthiest ways to enjoy yogurt, as a nourishing snack or mini-meal, is to toss chopped fresh fruit into plain yogurt or add a little honey and wheat germ.
You can eat yogurt for breakfast, straight out of the carton, topped with fruit and/or cereal, or as a topping for pancakes or waffles. Blended with fresh fruit and ice, it becomes a smoothie -- a quick and portable breakfast or snack.
Or, satisfy your sweet tooth with frozen yogurt (or a frozen container of regular yogurt). You'll get half the calories of premium ice cream and none of the fat.
Yogurt is also a versatile ingredient for recipes ranging from appetizers to desserts. When recipes call for cream, sour cream, or mayonnaise, low-fat plain yogurt can easily stand in for part or all of the higher-fat ingredients.
Elaine Magee, MPH, RD, the "Recipe Doctor" for the WebMD Weight Loss Clinic, advises using yogurt in cool dishes such as cold soups, salad dressings and dips, or as a creamy dessert topping.
Since yogurt separates when heated, it's a little trickier using it in hot dishes. But it can be done: Try mixing a little cornstarch into the yogurt, then stirring into your hot dish at the end of the cooking period.
Magee often uses yogurt to lower the fat content of her baked goods. "Yogurt is a great substitute for oil or butter in cakes and muffins because it adds moisture, volume and flavor without added fat or calories," she says.
Yogurt's acid content means it also works well in a marinade, to help tenderize meats.
Yogurt is perishable, so be sure to check the date on the container. An unopened container should keep about 10 days past the marked freshness date.
Making Your Own Yogurt
Want a ready supply of healthy, inexpensive plain yogurt? Try making your own.
The process is simple: Add live cultures to heated milk, and hold it at 110 degrees Fahrenheit until it's firm. You can then add flavorings, or, if you want to thicken it and boost the nutrition, you can add nonfat milk solids.
You can buy yogurt makers, which cost from $15-$60, or make it the old fashioned way with the recipe below:
U.S. Department of Agriculture
1 quart of milk (Low-fat is healthiest, but the higher the fat content, the creamier and smoother the yogurt will be)
1/4 cup dried starter culture or yogurt with active culture.*
1/3 cup nonfat dry milk powder (use 2/3 cup if you're using skim milk); optional
1 teaspoon unflavored gelatin for thickening; optional)
Clean yogurt containers or canning jars with lids
*You can purchase dried starter cultures, or just get some plain yogurt containing live culture. Make sure the carton says it contains "live culture" or "active yogurt culture." Many pasteurized yogurts no longer contain the active ingredient.
- Place the starter culture or active-culture yogurt in a large bowl. Add the dry milk powder, if using. If you want a thicker yogurt, add 1 teaspoon unflavored gelatin, mixed with a small amount of milk.
- Warm milk to 110 degrees Fahrenheit (use a thermometer) in a 1-2 quart saucepan or double boiler.
- Add a small amount of the warmed milk to the active-culture yogurt or starter culture and stir.
- Slowly add the rest of the warmed milk to the mixture. Stir well.
- Cover the bowl and place the mixture into a commercial yogurt maker, an oven on very low heat (200 degrees), a heating pad, or a warm spot in your kitchen. Leave until set, about 6-8 hours. Use the thermometer to make sure the temperature stays at 100 degrees.
- When set, refrigerate the yogurt for 8 hours before eating.
Yield: 4-5 cups yogurt
After the yogurt is set, you can stir in fruit and/or flavorings. To sweeten, try 2-4 teaspoons honey or sugar.
To make drinkable yogurt: add additional milk and/or fruit syrups to taste, after the yogurt is done.
To make frozen yogurt: Follow the directions on your ice cream maker, using the homemade yogurt instead of cream or milk.
To make yogurt cheese (which can be used as a substitute for cream cheese or in cooking): Drain yogurt in a strainer lined with cheesecloth and leave overnight (cover the entire bowl, yogurt and strainer with a cloth).
In the morning, drain the liquid in the bowl. Place a weight (you can use a sealed plastic bag filled with water) on the cheese, cover again, and let stand another 8 hours. Wrap yogurt cheese and refrigerate.