Yogurt has muscle-building protein and bone-strengthening calcium—but it can also help you lose weight and fend off a cold. Here's the scoop on yogurt health benefits—and how much you should eat.
Your morning yogurt bowl (with ALL the toppings) does so much more for your body than just provide a nice balance of macros—although it totally does that, too. Learn more about the sometimes surprising yogurt health benefits that will make you want to eat this creamy treat every morning, afternoon, and night.
1. Yogurt can give you flat abs.
Eat 18 ounces a day and you can drop a 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 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, Ph.D. This benefit of Greek yogurt is likely due in large party to the calcium that signals your fat cells to pump out less cortisol, making it easier for you to drop pounds. Also helpful: The amino acids that aid in the fat-burning process.
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 Dawn Jackson Blatner, R.D., the author of The Flexitarian Diet. Otherwise, save a few dollars and stick to conventional brands. (Related: 5 Legit Benefits of Probiotics-and How You Should Take Them)
Yogurt gets its "Greek" label when it has been strained to get rid of whey, which is the liquid that's left over after the curdling process. Without whey, yogurt takes on a thicker, creamier consistency with a higher concentration of protein and good-for-your-gut probiotics (another benefit of Greek yogurt: less sugar).
Just be sure to stick with plain, if you can, for lower levels of sweetness. Dannon Oikos Plain Greek Yogurt, for instance, has 15 grams of protein and 6 grams of sugar in a 5.3-ounce serving, which trumps the 5 grams of protein and 15 grams of sugar in the same amount of the brand's regular nonfat vanilla yogurt. (That high protein count is one of the benefits of Greek yogurt for vegetarians.)
4. 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, R.D., the author of Big Green Cookbook.
Eating more yogurt can help close the nutrient gap: An 8-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, R.D., 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.
For an even bigger boost to join this benefit of Greek yogurt, enjoy it alongside a bottle of water: The protein in yogurt may also help increase the amount of water absorbed by the intestines, improving hydration. (Related: The Best Foods to Eat Before and After Your Workout)
6. Not all yogurt is equal when it comes to calcium and vitamin D.
Since it naturally contains calcium, you'd think the yogurt health benefits and vitamin D 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 a brand like Stonyfield Farms Fat-Free Smooth and Creamy, which contains at least 20 percent of your daily value for both nutrients. (Related: Vitamin D May Improve Your Athletic Performance)
7. 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 is clutch for this benefit of Greek yogurt, almost 600 milligrams per 8 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.
8. A daily serving of yogurt keeps colds away.
How about this for a surprising yogurt health benefit: Dig into 4 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, Ph.D., 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 7 ounces a day had fewer symptoms than those who opted for none at all.
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 is another benefit of Greek yogurt—it appears to give your gums protection as well. People who eat at least 2 ounces a day have a 60 percent lower risk of acquiring severe periodontal disease than those who skip it.
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.
You probably already knew about this yogurt health benefit: Yogurt can be an excellent source of protein. But apparently, "one variety may contain more than double the protein of another," says Blatner. 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 5 grams. If you're eating it for the protein, look for brands that provide at least 8 to 10 grams per serving.
12. It helps you feel fuller, longer.
All of that protein is a big benefit of Greek yogurt in the way that it helps fuel your muscles—and in its impact on reducing hunger pangs, finds a study published in the journal Appetite. Study participants snacked on Greek yogurt with varying amounts of protein three hours after lunch for three days straight.
The group that ate yogurt with the highest amount of protein (24 grams per serving) reported feeling fuller and didn't feel hungry enough for dinner until almost an hour later than the group who ate lower-protein yogurt.
What to Look for When Buying 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:
Fat: 3.5 grams or less
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
Chobani Less Sugar Greek Yogurt Madagascar Vanilla and Cinnamon
Nutrition facts per 5.3-ounce container: 120 calories, 12g protein, 11g carbohydrate, 2.5g fat (1.5g saturated), 0g fiber
Stonyfield Organic Plain Lowfat Yogurt
Nutrition facts per 6-ounce container: 110 calories, 10g protein, 14g carbohydrate, 2g fat (1.5g saturated), 0g fiber
Fage Key Lime Total 2% Greek Yogurt
Nutrition facts per 5.3-ounce container: 120 calories, 12g protein, 13g carbohydrate, 2.5g fat (1.5g saturated), 0g fiber