French Women's Diet Secret: Yogurt

Easy, portable, and tasty, yogurt may also aid in weight loss

By Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD/LD
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Feature

Reviewed By Charlotte E. Grayson, MD

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.


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