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02/06/2014 02:23 EST | Updated 02/06/2014 02:59 EST

Yogurt Lowers Diabetes Risk

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Eating yogurt and low-fat cheese can cut the risk of developing diabetes by around a quarter compared with consuming none, according to a study of 3,500 Britons published on Wednesday.

The evidence comes from a long-term health survey of men and women living in the eastern county of Norfolk, whose eating and drinking habits were detailed at the start of the investigation.

During the study's 11-year span, 753 people in the group developed adult-onset, also called Type 2, diabetes.

Those who ate low-fat fermented dairy products -- a category that includes yogurts, fromage frais and low-fat cottage cheese -- were 24 percent less likely to develop the disease compared to counterparts who ate none of these products.

When examined separately from the other low-fat dairy products, yogurt by itself was associated with a 28-percent reduced risk.

People in this category ate on average four and a half standard 125-gramme (4.4-ounce) pots of yogurt each week.

Those who ate a yogurt for a snack, instead of a packet of crisps, had a whopping 47-percent reduction in the probability of developing diabetes.

Only low-fat, fermented dairy products were associated with the fall in risk. Consumption of high-fat fermented products, and of milk, had no impact.

The research, published in the specialist journal Diabetologia, was not designed to probe why eating low-fat fermented dairy products appears to be so beneficial.

One future line of inquiry is whether the impact comes from probiotic bacteria and a special form of Vitamin K they contain, according to the paper, headed by Nita Forouhi, an epidemiologist at the University of Cambridge.

"At a time when we have a lot of other evidence that consuming high amounts of certain foods, such as added sugars and sugary drinks, is bad for our health, it is very reassuring to have messages about other foods like yogurt and low-fat fermented dairy products that could be good for our health," said Forouhi.

The study took into account factors such as obesity and a family history of diabetes that could potentially skew the results.

But, its authors acknowledged, it also had a limitation.

Volunteers' eating habits were recorded in exacting detail at the start of the study but this information was not updated during the ensuing 11 years. So it was unknown if or how they changed their diet over this time.

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  • Keep it simple.
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    To make yogurt, all that's needed is milk and two live bacterial cultures, Lactobacillus bulgaricus and Streptococcus thermophilus, which turn the milk into yogurt via fermentation. "Beyond that, a few added extras for flavor, like a little sugar or some fruit, are fine," Kaufman says. Steer clear of products that have long lists of ingredients with things you can't pronounce or wouldn't expect to see in yogurt, like hydrogenated oils and artificial sweeteners.
  • Look for good bugs.
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    Probiotics -- good bacteria similar to the ones living in your digestive tract -- are yogurt's key ingredient. These beneficial bugs have been shown to help with digestion and gut health. But surprisingly, not all yogurt sold in stores actually contains "live and active cultures," as the bacteria in yogurt are known. Some companies heat-treat yogurt after culturing, which kills off bacteria, both good and bad, to make it more shelf-stable and reduce tartness.
  • Make calcium count.
    AP
    Yogurt is a stellar source of bone-building calcium, but the amount can vary from brand to brand. Aim for one that has at least 15 percent of the daily value for calcium; the yogurts on our list contain anywhere from 15 to 35 percent.
  • Do a sugar check.
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    Trying to cut back on added sugar? Don't rely only on the number of grams listed on the label. Yogurt has a fair amount of naturally occurring milk sugar, aka lactose (about 9 grams in a 6-ounce container of plain regular yogurt, and about 7 grams in Greek yogurt), and the sugar figure includes both natural and added sugars. Our shortcut: Avoid any product that lists sugar as the first or second ingredient.
  • Beware of fake fruit.
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    Adding your own fresh fruit to plain yogurt is always a healthy choice. But sometimes you want the convenience of yogurt with fruit already added. Make sure you see actual fruit on the list of ingredients, ideally before any added sugars, Kaufman advises. "Otherwise it probably just contains a mix of sugar and food coloring or vegetable juice," she says.
  • Don't fear the fat.
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    Opting for nonfat yogurt can help you keep calories and saturated fat in check. But, Kaufman warns, "nonfat doesn't always mean low in calories. Many nonfat yogurts have a lot of added sugar." Go for a version that gets most of its sweetness from real fruit, or try adding a teaspoon of honey to plain nonfat yogurt.

    If you prefer the taste of a higher-fat yogurt, it's OK to move up to 1 or 2 percent. "Some new research indicates that saturated fat in dairy might not be the bad guy we once thought," Kaufman notes. For example, a 2011 study from Brown University found that eating dairy products wasn't linked to heart attack risk, "possibly because there are other protective nutrients in dairy that balance out the effects of saturated fat," she says. You can even go for full-fat if you have the cals to spare; just make it your saturated-fat splurge of the day.
  • Read labels carefully.
    Flickr:Listener42
    Luckily, it's easy to tell if your yogurt includes probiotics. The National Yogurt Association has created a Live & Active Cultures seal for products that contain significant amounts of L. bulgaricus and S. thermophilus. (These two bacteria, in particular, must be used in order for a product to be called "yogurt," per federal regulations. You might see additional cultures listed, but the research on their health benefits is still emerging; a yogurt that contains more cultures isn't necessarily better for you.) Not every company chooses to carry the seal, so you can also look for "Live and Active Cultures" on the label or L. bulgaricus and S. thermophilus in the ingredient list. If a product has been heat-treated after culturing, the company is required to say so on the label.