If you’ve already committed to incorporating more yogurt into your diet (kudos), the next step is making sure you are squeezing every possible benefit from it. Whether you're partial to flavored yogurt, Greek yogurt, skyr, or non-dairy, plant-based yogurt, registered dietitian and nutrition expert Kristie Leigh, RD, director of Scientific Affairs at Danone North America, has tips that will ensure you’re getting the most out of every delicious spoonful.
How to reap the most yogurt benefits for gut health and digestion, according to an RD
1. When grocery shopping, keep yogurt cool by placing it alongside other cold items in your shopping cart
Dairy-based yogurt needs to be kept cold for food safety reasons. But temperature matters when it comes to all types of yogurt, including those that are plant-based, and here’s why (in addition to the food safety factor): According to Leigh, yogurt must stay between 32°F and 45°F to protect its live, active gut-boosting cultures, and she has some practical suggestions for maintaining this temperature.
First, Leigh recommends keeping yogurt in your cart next to other cold or frozen products while you shop, and then bagging those same items together to keep the yogurt cool on the way home. Once home, store the yogurt on a middle shelf—avoid the refrigerator door, where temperatures fluctuate more. “This will help ensure the live and active cultures and the quality of the yogurt are maintained,” says Leigh.
2. A little research can go a long way when it comes to finding the yogurt that meets your needs
Leigh points out that not all yogurts contain probiotics and there are many different types of probiotic strains, each of which confers different benefits. Knowing which specific strains (if any) are in your yogurt is key to knowing what you are getting out of it. For example, according to Leigh, the widely-used Lactobacillus Rhamnosus GG strain has been shown to support immune health. It’s not always straightforward, however. For one, Leigh notes that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not regulate the use of the word “probiotic” on food labels. That means that you will need to dig deeper to learn more about specific strains—especially because not all yogurts contain probiotics.
The first step, says Leigh, is searching the product label for the specific strains in the yogurt. The names of these strains usually consist of the genus, the species, and the specific strain, expressed as a combination of numbers and/or letters. Plugging the strain name into a search engine can help you figure out what benefits—if any—that particular strain is associated with. “There are products that contain many different ‘probiotics’ in one formula, but without the strain information you won’t be able to determine if the bacteria in the product are actually studied probiotic strains or cultures without a studied benefit,” says Leigh.
Leigh also stresses that when it comes to the number of probiotic strains in a serving of yogurt, more isn’t always better. “Depending on the benefit you are looking for, you may only need one probiotic strain to get that benefit,” she says. The same goes for the number of colony-forming units (CFUs), which are the number of live microorganisms in the product. “The number of CFUs needed to get the benefit is dependent on the probiotic strain, so without a little research, it's difficult to know if you are getting the amount needed,” says Leigh.
Leigh also recommends looking for probiotic products with multiple benefits. "For instance, some yogurt brands can do double duty by supporting your gut health as well as your immune system. The brand-new Activia+ Multi-Benefit Drinkable Yogurt is a great example—it's packed with probiotics, supports your gut health, and has as vitamin D, zinc, and vitamin C to help support the immune system."
3. Pair your yogurt with plant-based foods to diversify your diet
Though yogurt can do a lot of heavy lifting on its own when it comes to gut health, mixing it with plant-based foods can add flavor, texture, and additional gut-boosting benefits.
Citing findings from the American Gut Project, a crowdfunded citizen science project that collects data about the human microbiome, Leigh notes that people who consume 30 different types of plants a week have been shown to have greater gut bacteria diversity—an indicator of good gut health—compared to those who consumed 10 or fewer plants a week. “Luckily, many plant based foods pair deliciously with yogurt, like fruits, grains, vegetables and even nuts,” says Leigh. The takeaway? Topping your yogurt bowl with dried cranberries, cherries, banana slices, peanut butter, toasted almonds, or chia (or all of the above) is a major power move for your gut health.
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