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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.2. 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.3. 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.
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.5. 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.6. 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.
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.8. 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.9. 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.10. 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.
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
FITNESS staffers eat a lot of yogurt. We chose our three favorites using the nutrition criteria on page 4 and, most important, our taste buds.Chobani Honey 0% Greek Yogurt
Supremely rich and creamy yet completely fat-free. A swirl of honey gives it just the right amount of sweetness.
Nutrition facts per 6-ounce container: 150 calories, 16g protein, 20g carbohydrate, 0g fat (0g saturated), 0g fiberOrganic Valley Plain Lowfat Yogurt
It's thick enough to add to a smoothie but thin enough to drink straight from the container -- er, glass. Also comes in vanilla and mixed berry.
Nutrition facts per 8-ounce serving (plain): 110 calories, 8g protein, 13g carbohydrate, 2.5g fat (1.5g saturated), 2g fiberYoCrunch 100 Calorie Packs Vanilla with Chocolate Chip Cookie Pieces
The perfect mini snack, it contains Truvia, a sweetener made from the stevia plant, instead of aspartame or Splenda.
Nutrition facts per 3.75-ounce container: 100 calories, 3g protein, 21g carbohydrate, 2g fat (1g saturated), 0g fiber
Originally published in FITNESS magazine, April 2010.