For better health, eat yogurt like a French woman

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Yogurt is a “vital secret for hunger management,” writes Mireille Giuliano, author of French Women Don’t Get Fat, noting that women in France will regularly eat a serving or more for breakfast, as a snack, or as a dessert as a way to stay slimmer, sexier, and healthier. In fact, the average French woman (and man), eats at least one serving of yogurt a day, or at least six times per week, while the average American eats zero-to-three servings per week.

Giuliano’s claims don’t appear to be contestable. Yogurt’s benefits are well supported by evidence, according scientists who presented their research at the Yogurt in Nutrition Initiative for a Balanced Diet (YINI) 2nd Global Summit on the Health Effects of Yogurt, on April 30, in San Diego. The event took place during American Society for Nutrition’s Scientific Sessions and Annual Meeting at Experimental Biology 2014 in partnership with Danone.

Yogurt is strongly associated with being healthier and leaner across several different countries around the world, said pediatric nutritionist Mauro Fisberg, Ph.D., a professor at Federal University of São Paulo, Brazil.  He said those who averaged the most consumption were women and children, who were more highly educated and came from higher socioeconomic levels. Men don’t eat as much, but perhaps they should, he said.

Going over the long history of yogurt (and other fermented dairy products such as cuajada and kefir), Fisberg said that the ancient food was traditionally used as medicine and has proven to be a product that is rich in highly bioavailable protein, calcium and potassium, and probiotics. Traditionally, yogurt is also often consumed with other nutrient-dense foods such as nuts and fruits. In countries where consumption isn’t as frequent, Fisberg said, yogurt is a “window of lost opportunities.”

Why yogurt is linked to better health may have a lot do with its influence on appetite control, said Angelo Tremblay, Ph.D., a professor of kinesiology at Université Laval, Canada. The product’s food matrix, along with quantity of protein and calcium, and probiotics, may affect gut hormones related to satiety. Through each of these features, yogurt helps replace less healthy foods (e.g. chocolate bars) and can reduce overeating, he said.

Yogurt’s benefits aren’t limited to health and weight management in adults. Luis Moreno, Ph.D., a professor at University of Zaragoza, Spain, shared evidence that consuming dairy products, especially yogurt, during childhood and adolescence is associated with stronger bones and improved metabolic health.

Later in life, elderly can take advantage of yogurt’s dairy protein to maintain their muscle and strength, said Robert Wolfe, Ph.D., a professor of geriatrics of the University of Arkansas. Protein requirements increase as we grow older, he said, and dairy protein represents a more highly bioavailable source that is richer in essential amino acids—including muscle-supporting branched-chain amino acids—than other sources. As a source of high-quality proteins (whey and casein), according to Wolfe, dairy products including yogurt require less energy intake to meet essential amino acid needs. In addition, dairy proteins also are distinctive for having favorable effects on bone health and blood pressure in elderly, he said.

Reminding that yogurt, apart from its content of protein, is also a good source of calcium and vitamin D, René Rizzoli, Ph.D., of University Hospital of Geneva, Switzerland, said it can be a critical food for maintaining stronger bones and muscles for improved mobility in elderly.

The saturated fat content in full-fat or low-fat yogurt doesn’t appear to be much of a concern either, according to nutritional epidemiologist Nita Forouhi, Ph.D., a professor at the University of Cambridge, UK. The large prospective cohort study, EPIC-InterACT, did not find any association between total dairy product consumption and type 2 diabetes risk, while finding an inverse association between cheese and fermented dairy intake and type 2 diabetes. The EPIC-Norfolk study also found that higher consumption of yogurt or 125 grams per day, compared to no yogurt consumption, was associated with 28 percent risk reduction of type 2 diabetes.

Growing evidence also suggests that fermented products including yogurt have a key role in shaping intestinal microbiota, said pediatric gastroenterologist Olivier Goulet, M.D., Ph.D. Recent studies have found that mircrobiota (e.g. bifidobacteria and lactobacilli) have an influence on metabolic pathways—for example, glucose and lipid metabolism through short-chain fatty acids—which are associated with obesity and insulin sensitivity. Yogurt’s bacteria could even influence the body’s stress response, as well as mood and behavior, Dr. Goulet said.

Eating as much yogurt as a French woman is made easier given yogurt’s versatility, said registered dietitian nutritionist Ellie Krieger, MS, RD. Closing out the global summit, she shared several of her own favorite sweet and savory recipes including yogurt as a breakfast or a snack, as a base for salad dressings, dips, soups, and sauces, and as a substitute for whipped or sour cream. Some of these recipes are found in her newly published cookbook, Weeknight Wonders.

To learn more about the scientific evidence surrounding the benefits of yogurt, read last year’s article about the 1st Global Summit on the Health Effects of Yogurt, which took place in Boston, at 2013 Experimental Biology. For more about the 2nd summit, visit YINI’s blog

Photo credit: iStockphoto (I thought she could be French, but she’s probably not.)

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