Here's Why (and How!) to Add Yogurt Into Your Diet, Fro-Yo Included

We love yogurt — its health bona fides and that tart, creamy wow. Get to know this wonder food, then spoon it, swap it, swirl it every which way.

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Excuse us for holding up traffic in the yogurt aisle lately, but it's an exciting place to be! Taking a cue from yogurt-loving countries the world over, Americans have turned a fringy health food into a scrumptious staple. In this new golden age, grocery store standards topped with strawberry and banana are now joined by those decked out in exotic fruits, earthy vegetables, and even sea salt and spices.

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Wondering what yogurt actually is? At the most basic level, it's milk fermented with body-boosting bacteria like Streptococcus thermophilus and Lactobacillus bulgaricus. (Many brands add bonus strains, too, like L. acidophilus and bifidus — both backed by some promising health data.) These bugs produce enzymes, including ones that can digest lactose, which is why people who can't drink milk still might enjoy yogurt. At the end of the process, you've got something thick, rich, and tangy. Voilà! The milk has transformed into plain yogurt.

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But in the right hands, that "plain" flavor tastes anything but. With a slew of alterna-milk varieties and the revival of old-world yogurtmaking techniques, a cup of the unadulterated white stuff carries plenty of delicious nuance. Plain Greek yogurt, for instance, is strained to remove much of the whey, for a tangier, thicker (not to mention more protein-rich) fix than regular yogurt.

Whatever type you choose, yogurt is great straight or as a delicious starting point for classic and bold toppings alike. And yogurt cooks up just fine in recipes for everything from sauces to desserts. A food that both chefs and dietitians can get behind? Believe it.

The Benefits of Yogurt

  • Improve blood pressure: Its potassium content (there's more in a cup than in a small banana) could be why.
  • Strengthen bones: One cup covers roughly a third of your recommended daily calcium intake. Some brands are also fortified with vitamin D, which helps you absorb the mineral.
  • Calm digestive issues: Healthy bacteria in many yogurts (labeled "live and active cultures") may ease irritable bowel symptoms and keep food moving smoothly through the GI tract.
  • Lower type 2 diabetes risk: A serving a day was associated with an 18 percent lower chance of getting the disease, according to a 2014 Harvard study — possibly because its probiotics help soothe inflammation and balance blood sugar levels.

How to Decode the Labels

  • 100% Grass-Fed: This ensures that no grain is fed to the cows. The resulting yogurt has a subtly grassy taste and extra omega-3s.
  • Vegan: Made from almond, coconut, or soy milk, these yogurts can provide probiotic benefits similar to their dairy counterparts. They also offer calcium, and soy yogurt has decent protein, too.
  • Fat: Nonfat comes with the least calories but may have more sugar. So don't fear the fat! A bit (2 percent) can be worth it.
  • Goat Milk: It's nutritionally similar to regular cow's-milk yogurt but tends to be extra tangy.

4 Useful Yogurt Swaps

Try our yogurt swaps to turn "sometimes" foods into nutritious "go for it" treats.

  1. Switch out heavy cream for yogurt a dreamy "panna cotta" with strawberries.
  2. Yogurt replaces sour cream in our one-pan chicken with a velvety herb sauce above.
  3. Forget cream cheese. DIY yogurt cheese tastes more interesting on toast with cool toppings.
  4. A bright and satisfying Caesar potato salad has no mayo, only yogurt.

How Healthy Is Frozen Yogurt?

Pretty healthy — if you shop right. When we compared ½ cup of regular vanilla yogurt with ½ cup of frozen vanilla yogurt (same brand), we found they had about the same amount of calcium and protein. The frozen even packs some probiotic power. So if you don't mind the few grams of extra sugar (19 instead of 15) and a few extra calories (100 instead of 85), it's not a shabby choice.

Keep portion size in mind, and remember: Brands vary, especially when it comes to calories, and some might skip the probiotics. Look for the label "live and active cultures." Also, avoid gooey, sugary toppings, and reverse your ratio at the yogurt shop: Fill your cup with fruit, and top it with a swirl of the frozen stuff. It's a feel-good way to get your fix.

This story originally appeared in the September 2016 issue of Dr. Oz The Good Life.

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