Is yogurt Paleo? Here are the pros and cons of eating this probiotic-laden treat.
When you’re trying to get healthy, some choices are easy.
A side salad beats french fries. Fruit and vegetables trump ice cream and pizza. But what about yogurt?
It’s one of those “gray area” foods in the Paleo world. It has a great reputation among mainstream nutritionists, and people buy it in the grocery store in droves.
Yet not everyone in the Paleo community is on board. For every expert singing yogurt’s praises, there seems to be another one telling you to avoid it.
If you’re tired of the confusion, you aren’t alone. It’s time to get to the bottom of this.
Is yogurt Paleo? Should it have a place in your diet? Keep reading to find out.
Yogurt: A Hot Button Issue in the Paleo Community
The yogurt most people are buying and eating is a dairy product.
That means it isn’t allowed on the strictest versions of the Paleo diet (like the one created by Dr. Loren Cordain).
Anti-dairy people in the Paleo community argue that dairy consumption didn’t start until the Neolithic period, which happened after the Paleolithic. The nutritional model many base their diet on is that of hunter-gatherers before widespread animal domestication and agriculture. So dairy doesn’t have a place there.
But others in the Paleo community (like Mark Sisson from Mark’s Daily Apple) argue that dairy can fit well in an ancestral approach to health. They emphasize quality dairy products, which come from organic, full-fat and unsweetened milk. The general consensus is that most commercial dairy is loaded with hormones, antibiotics and other harmful chemicals.
Using Your Own Body as a Guide
The dairy issue is one of the most controversial ones in the Paleo community.
It can be tough to know who to listen to. That’s why it’s important to point out that people don’t respond to dairy the same way across the board. There’s a spectrum. Dairy might be bad news for your brother but not a huge deal for you.
You don’t have to eat dairy or yogurt specifically. As Dr. Cordain points out, you can get all the nutrients you find in dairy from other foods – like vegetables, fruits, meats, seafood, and nuts (1).
Ultimately, it’s a personal choice. If you aren’t sure how well you tolerate dairy (a lot of people never find out because they’ve had dairy all their lives), the best way to find out for sure is to cut all dairy for at least a month. Then, gradually introduce it into your diet and track the effects. You might be more sensitive than you think.
Assuming you can tolerate dairy and like the taste, yogurt can definitely have a place in your diet. Here are the major pros and cons:
A lot of people follow a diet and lifestyle that causes their gut bacteria to become unbalanced. We end up with too many harmful bacteria and not enough “good” bacteria to stay healthy. Unbalanced gut flora has been linked to health issues like asthma, allergies, and inflammation, among many others (2).
Yogurt contains probiotics (the “good” bacteria) that can help restore balance in your gut. To make it, bacteria cultures – like Lactobacillus acidophilus – are used to start the fermentation process and convert lactose (milk sugar) into lactic acid (3). Some manufacturers also add more good bacteria (like Bifidobacterium) later on in the fermentation process (4).
Getting enough of this good bacteria is proving to be more important than previously thought. One UCLA study found that healthy women who ate yogurt experienced “altered brain function,” both while resting and responding to an emotion-recognition task, compared to women who didn’t (5). And taking probiotics has already been shown to reduce anxiety and depression (6).
2. Healthy Fats
Yogurt from grass-fed, pasture-raised cows is also packed full of omega-3 fatty acids and CLA (conjugated linoleic acid). These are mostly found in the fat of the dairy product, so you won’t get many of them if you eat low-fat (or fat-free) yogurt.
Animal studies found that CLA helped prevent plaque from forming in the arteries of rodents (7). And that’s not all. CLA also helps reduce belly fat, increases the metabolism, and strengthens the immune system (8).
Yogurt from grass-fed cows is much richer in omega-3s and CLA than the factory farmed stuff (9).
3. Vitamins and Minerals
The nutritional profile of organic, grass-fed yogurt is pretty solid. You’ll find plenty of B-vitamins and phosphorus, as well as 30 percent of the federal government’s recommended daily amount of calcium in a single serving (10).
Organic, full-fat yogurt definitely isn’t a junk food, but it’s not perfect.
The biggest issues why yogurt might not be right for you are the same issues you’d find with milk, cheese or other dairy products:
1. Digestion Issues
Lactose is a sugar found in milk and dairy products. A big chunk of the world’s population – about 65 percent – don’t have the gut enzyme (lactase) needed to break it down (11). Consuming lactose causes them to have gas and stomach issues. Fermenting the yogurt helps, but the lactose that remains can still cause trouble for people sensitive to it.
Casein, the main protein in dairy, is another potential issue. Its structure is similar to gluten’s, and some people in the Paleo community claim it causes similar effects on our digestion and guts. Lactose intolerance and casein intolerance are two completely different issues, though people sometimes confuse the two. If you can’t handle casein, Greek yogurt is an especially bad choice because it’s concentrated there.
2. Raising Insulin Levels
In the Paleo community, we’re always avoiding foods that spike our insulin levels. The typical modern diet is full of things that send your insulin on a rollercoaster ride. Your body adapts by becoming resistant to insulin. And insulin resistance has been linked to Type 2 diabetes, obesity, and other health issues (12).
Dairy products can have a serious insulin-boosting effect. One study found that eating full-fat fermented milk products or regular full-fat milk boosted insulin almost as much as white bread (13).
As Mark Sisson pointed out, an occasional insulin spike isn’t always a bad thing (14). A lot depends on your current health. An occasional insulin spike from dairy is no big deal if you’re healthy and have followed Paleo long enough to restore insulin sensitivity. But it might not be a great idea if you still have weight to lose or are struggling with a serious health issue.
Studies as far back as 1949 have raised the possibility that consuming dairy may cause acne.
However, three studies within the past 10 years found connections between dairy products and acne (15). The strongest relationship between dairy and acne breakouts came when study participants drank skim milk. The quality of the dairy consumed also probably plays a role, thanks to the hormones in factory-farmed milk. If you’re struggling with acne, cut dairy from your diet for a while and watch the effects.
What About Greek Yogurt?
Greek yogurt is one of the trendiest health foods around.
It’s a popular alternative to traditional yogurt, and contains much more protein per serving than the usual stuff you’d get from Dannon or Yoplait (16).
Greek yogurt is still a dairy product. So if you’re avoiding dairy or don’t tolerate it well, you’ll want to avoid it too.
The difference is in the preparation. Greek yogurt is strained during production, which removes a lot of the whey, lactose (milk sugar), and water. You end up with a creamier yogurt that can keep you feeling full for a long time.
Just like with regular yogurt, there’s a huge range of options to choose from at the grocery store. Some are a lot healthier than others.
Speaking of that…
Finding the Best Yogurt at the Grocery Store
If you’re going to eat yogurt, focus on top-quality products.
There’s a huge difference between 100 percent organic yogurt and the “yogurts” manufacturers churn out by the millions. Those are often made from a weird mixture of low-fat (or fat-free) milk that’s loaded with antibiotics and hormones, as well as plenty of other artificial sugars and flavorings. Some commercial yogurts don’t even contain any probiotics!
It all starts with the cow’s diet. Cows produce much healthier milk (and yogurt) when they’re fed their natural diet: grass. Organic milk has 62 percent more healthy omega-3 fats than non-organic milk – the type that comes from factory-farmed cows fed corn and soy (17).
The best yogurt option?
Yogurt with “100 percent grass-fed” on the label.
“Certified organic” yogurt is the next best choice. Certified organic cows must spend at least 120 days a year grazing on pasture for companies to be able to label their dairy products that way (18).
Organic yogurt is an important step, but it doesn’t get you completely out of the woods. Sometimes manufacturers “heat treat” their yogurt to kill off live cultures and extend their products’ shelf life. But you want yogurt with active cultures to reap the most nutritional benefits. Fortunately, the FDA requires manufacturers to label which yogurts are “heat-treated after culturing.” Go for containers labeled with “active cultures,” “contains active cultures,” or “living yogurt cultures.”
Another area where yogurt manufacturers come up short: quick fermenting times. Fermenting yogurt quickly (many companies do it in less than one hour) lets companies produce more, but forces them to add other ingredients (like whey concentrates and modified corn starch) to give their yogurt a thicker texture.
Finally, watch out for low-fat/fat-free yogurts or yogurts with added sugar. If you don’t, you’ll miss out on many of yogurt’s benefits.
Bottom line: go for organic, full-fat, plain yogurt. Milk and living cultures are the only two ingredients you need!
Making Your Own Yogurt: A Simple (and Tasty) Alternative
Finding quality yogurt at the grocery store can be tricky. Having to look through all those food labels to find something halfway decent can seem like more trouble than it’s worth.
Ever thought about making your own?
You can, and it’s a lot easier than you might think.
All you need is some milk, a starter culture (or other yogurt), and access to a stove. The cool thing is that you aren’t just limited to cow’s milk if dairy is a problem for you. You could also make yogurt from coconut milk, almond milk and others.
Here’s a simple recipe to make homemade yogurt from coconut milk.
A Personal Decision
Because yogurt is a dairy product, it isn’t Paleo in the strictest sense…
But that doesn’t mean you should automatically eliminate it from your diet.
It comes down to how well you tolerate dairy products and whether you like the taste. You don’t have to eat yogurt if you don’t want to because you can get the nutrients from other foods. But it can be a tasty treat… and an effective way to add probiotics and healthy fats to your diet.
If you choose to eat yogurt, sticking to top-quality milk will really make it count. It doesn’t matter if you’re eating regular yogurt, Greek yogurt, or making your own. The less processing and ingredients, the bigger the health benefits.
Do you eat yogurt? Why or why not? Leave a comment below and share your experience!
(Related: What Is Gluten and Is It Bad For You?)