I have a personal interest in the value of yogurt in health promotion, so I was delighted to be asked by the Yogurt in Nutrition Initiative for a Balanced Diet (YINI) to attend the 4th International conference on Nutrition and Growth in Amsterdam. Here are my insights from the symposium entitled How Yogurt could improve Health in Children (plus some pretty pictures from Amsterdam!).
The array of eminent speakers shared their research on topics including how yogurt may facilitate better eating habits in children, how tastes for sweet and sour can be learned, how yogurt maybe associated with reduced cardio-metabolic risk factors in children, including susceptibility to obesity. My fingers could hardly tweet fast enough!
My 3 key learnings
1. Yogurt can be a marker of a healthy diet. This goes over and above the actual nutritional value of yogurt. There is evidence that children and adolescents who eat yogurt at least once a week have a healthier diet then those who don’t. Yogurt consumption is associated with lower intakes of saturated fats, higher intakes of fruit, veg and whole grains, and higher intakes of nutrients such as calcium and potassium. More on this.
2. Yogurt makes only a small contribution to children’s sugar intakes. If children are exposed to foods that are not sweet, they can learn to like them, but they are naturally programmed to prefer sweeter foods (after all, breast milk is sweet). However, it seems that the general concern that sweetened yogurt is contributing to exceeding sugar intakes may have been a misconception; yogurt appears to account for only 4 to 9% of free sugars in children’s diets. More on sugar and yogurt.
3. Yogurt may play a role in reducing obesity and cardiovascular risk. In a 3-year follow-up study of children and adolescents, one serving of yogurt a day was shown to reduce body fat by 0.65% and the risk of obesity and overweight was shown to be 13% lower. Frequent yogurt consumption is associated with improved insulin profile in children and teenagers.
Why this interests me as a dietitian
1. A marker for healthy eating
Adding an extra pot of yogurt per day can make up for nutrient shortfalls in the adolescent diet. Children may not naturally gravitate towards whole-grain foods, but according to the NHANES study, those children who had yogurt ate almost 30% more whole grains than those who didn’t. They were also more likely to eat fruit and have a generally better diet.
Encouraging teenagers to eat more yogurt could help them to reach recommended levels of nutrients such as calcium and iodine, which tend not to be adequate in adolescent diets. I try to encourage children and young people to eat yogurt regularly, and it seems that the reasons for doing so could be higher than just the inherent nutrient composition in the pot.
2. The Sugar Story
The UK’s Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition “Carbohydrates and Health” Report examines evidence from robust research, and one of the key recommendations are that we should aim to reduce our intake of free sugars to 5% of our daily calorie intake. Too much sugar (especially as sugar-rich drinks), is associated with higher calorie intake, so it makes sense to reduce our intake of sugar. But we need to be practical and we need to do this in a way that doesn’t compromise our intake of important nutrients.
As a practising dietitian, it’s important to me that my patients have a good range of nutrients for optimum health. Certain sugar-rich foods, such as soft drinks, sweets and confectionery, don’t come packaged with other nutrients; these are the foods that I suggest people cut down on. There are other foods such as flavoured yogurt that contain smaller amounts of free sugars, but they carry extra goodness like protein, calcium, iodine and phosphorus. If I can encourage families to enjoy yogurt as part of a healthy lifestyle, and they don’t like plain yogurt, I feel it’s absolutely acceptable that they enjoy a fruit flavoured yogurt within a varied eating pattern. Not only do they get the benefit of the nutrients naturally found in yogurt, choosing a yogurt in place of other desserts or snacks can often promote a calorie saving.
Having said that, you learn to like what you eat. Expose children to sweeter foods and they will be conditioned to prefer it. So, exposing them to less sweet foods makes good sense. I like the mix ‘n match idea: mix some fruit-flavoured yogurt with plain yogurt, or sugar-rich breakfast cereal with plainer cereal, so you gradually get them used to less sweet-tasting foods. Interestingly, yogurt consumption has been shown to protect against tooth erosion.
3. Reducing obesity and cardiovascular risk
Good eating habits need to start from childhood. We know that certain dietary habits can help to reduce risks of conditions such as obesity, Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. The evidence that suggests that children who eat yogurt were slimmer, had a lower BMI and less body fat, as well as an improved insulin profile, is good enough reason for me to believe that encouraging yogurt intake amongst young people is a healthy habit that could have long-term benefits. Using yogurt as a base for savoury foods, such as dips, sauces or salad dressings are good ways to cut calories and promote weight management.
I am a member of a YINI Working Group that originates Yogurt Nutrition Digests. This is an honest blogpost and has not been influenced by YINI. Sub-titles in videos are under review.