Is yogurt a healthy choice for breakfast or as a snack?

DEAR DOCTOR K:

Is yogurt a healthy choice for breakfast or as a snack?

DEAR READER:

You’ve heard me talk frequently about “good” and “bad” fats, and “good” and “bad” carbs. So it won’t be surprising when I say there are “good” yogurts and “bad” yogurts.

Here’s what I mean. Yogurt — plain, low-fat yogurt — is a healthy food. But many yogurt products contain ingredients you could do without, like added sweeteners. So let’s talk about what to look for in a healthy yogurt.

First, fat. Yogurt has the same percentage of fat as the milk (or soy) used to make it: 3.25 percent (whole milk), 0.5 percent to 2 percent (low-fat), and less than 0.5 percent (nonfat). I prefer low-fat yogurt, which strikes a good balance between saturated fat and taste. I have it at least three to four times per week.

Next up, protein. Yogurt is a good source of lean protein. But the amount of protein per serving in yogurt products varies quite a bit. Plain Greek-style yogurt is relatively high in protein because much of its excess water has been removed, thus concentrating the yogurt. At the other extreme, non-fat or “light” yogurts may have as little as 4 grams of protein per serving.

Try to avoid sweetened yogurts, which can contain three or more teaspoons of added sugar. Instead, start “clean” with plain, low-fat yogurt. Then add a bit of honey, maple syrup or sugar to taste.

Next, a surprise: I would also stay away from light or “lite” yogurts. To compensate for the fat removed from these yogurts, manufacturers add thickeners such as gelatin, gum or starch. Sweeteners and flavoring agents are also added. The result is a highly processed food that loses many of yogurt’s healthy attributes.

A base of plain, low-fat yogurt enhanced with your own healthy toppings makes for a good breakfast or snack. With the right additions, yogurt can supply a mix of fat, protein and fiber that is both filling and nutritious.

Here is a basic combination you can customize to your taste:

Fruit and yogurt: A cup of plain, low-fat yogurt, a medium handful of fresh fruit, and a sprinkling of nuts, granola, bran or oatmeal is all you need. Sweeten to taste with honey, maple syrup or regular sugar. Most likely, by adding just enough sweet stuff to make it taste good, you’ll have less sugar in your yogurt than if you start with a pre-sweetened yogurt.

You can also incorporate yogurt into other meals and snacks throughout the day. For example:

  • Dilute sour cream or mayonnaise with yogurt to cut back on fat calories without losing the flavor. (This is the advice our nutritionists give me. To be honest, I haven’t tried it yet.)
  • Make packaged dips with yogurt instead of sour cream.
  • Mix yogurt with lemon and honey to make a sweet sauce to put on fruit.

As always, check the Nutrition Facts label on the yogurt container. It will help you spot how much fat and  sugar it contains.