During the past week I tracked everything I ate with online software that adds up the nutritional values. I do this every now and then to see if my nutrition is improving, since that was one of my main motivations for transitioning to eating as a locavore (a person who eats only locally grown foods as much as possible).
As expected, my nutrition has improved substantially. In fact, I am now getting well over the recommended percent DVs (USDA's Percent Daily Values) on most essential nutrients.
There were only three problem nutrients identified - calcium, potassium and magnesium. I can adjust the potassium and magnesium deficiencies with fairly simple food changes, but the calcium deficit concerns me.
We commonly think of calcium as important for bone health and the prevention of osteoporosis. However I remember learning in my undergraduate human physiology courses how calcium is essential to some of the body's other systems. For example, brain and nerve function, muscle contractions, blood clotting, intercellular communication, insulin regulation of glucose - these things can't happen normally without sufficient calcium.
In a stroke of serendipity, I had already decided the theme of today's article would be yogurt. Yogurt is a good source of calcium, but I discovered even more reasons why yogurt is an important food.
As I was researching the health effects of yogurt, I came across fascinating research by Dr. Michael Zemel, done circa 2003 when he was a professor of nutrition at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. His special focus was studying the effects of calcium on obesity and weight loss.
In one study, subjects were assigned a diet with a deficit of 500 calories per day below what was necessary to maintain their current weight. One group received a food plan that included 18 ounces of yogurt per day (about 1,100 mg of calcium), while the diet of the other group received 500 mg of calcium per day from other food sources. Five hundred mg is about the average in a typical American diet. (My food tracking had shown my average daily calcium intake was about 560 mg - pretty close to the average.)
The study reported that the yogurt group lost 22 percent more weight than the control group. They also lost 61 percent more body fat and, specifically, 81 percent more belly fat. Belly fat is more closely associated with risk of heart disease and other health risks than fat carried on other parts of the body. Finally, the yogurt eaters were more likely to maintain lean muscle mass during weight loss.
I found these results fascinating. This study appears to have been fairly well-publicized in fitness and health media at the time, but I had never heard about it until now. It turns out that in a separate study of 120,000 people by different researchers, yogurt was ranked the highest of all weight loss related foods. Who knew?
If weight loss is not one of your concerns, yogurt has other significant health benefits, too. One that's popular (with new terminology) relates to probiotics, certain live cultures used to make yogurt from milk. In most yogurts, the cultures are "live and active" when they are eaten, and it will say so on the container.
Yogurt cultures are actually beneficial bacteria necessary to human gut health and good digestion. The bacteria can help displace other harmful bacteria, which can become established due to illness, certain medications, or poor food choices.
Besides calcium and probiotics, yogurt is also rich in potassium (another of my three nutritional deficiencies) and several other essential minerals. A one-cup serving also contains about 60 percent of the vitamin B12 percent DV for adult women. B12 supports healthy red blood cells and nervous system functioning.
Yogurt is made by the bacterial cultures breaking down milk's lactose. Unfortunately, commercial yogurt is then often adulterated with artificial sweeteners and chemical additives.
Fortunately, it's easy to make healthy yogurt at home. As you can see in the recipe below, milk is first sterilized by heating, then is cooled to a temperature that supports growth of the "starter" culture.
That temperature is maintained until the flavor suits your taste. There are various methods for maintaining the temperature. Here are a few: Commercial electric yogurt maker, gas oven with a pilot light, dehydrator, small picnic cooler with several bottles of hot water around the yogurt jars, thermos bottle, heating pad under the yogurt jar, or a towel wrapped around it.
Making yogurt yourself allows you to control how thick and tangy you want it. Add fruit, nuts or honey, if you like, and enjoy this amazing and healthful food.
1 quart milk (Fresh Breeze Organic Dairy, Lynden)
1/4 cup commercial yogurt with "live and active" cultures (or use homemade yogurt from a previous batch, or use a commercial "starter")
Using a non-reactive pan with a thick bottom (glass or stainless steel), warm the milk over medium-high heat to 185 degrees. To judge the heat, use a candy thermometer, or reduce heat just as small bubbles begin to form around the edge of the milk. (Some people prefer to use a double boiler.) Keep the milk at this temperature for 20-30 minutes to sterilize it, stirring frequently. Do not let it boil. The longer you heat it, the thicker the finished yogurt will be.
Remove from the heat and let milk cool to 110 degrees (on the warm side of lukewarm). You can put it in a sink of cold water to speed the process, if you like, but don't let it cool too much.
Add the commercial yogurt (or yogurt from previous homemade batch) and stir until mixed completely.
Pour into portion-size glass containers, or pint (2-cup) glass canning jars and put on lids.
Maintain temperature at 110 degrees for 6 to 12 hours. Taste to decide when it's ready. Move the yogurt container as little as possible.
Refrigerate. This will virtually stop bacterial growth, but the culture will still be live.
Makes 4 cups.
You'll find Whatcom County foods at these stores and farms. Many outlets have seasonal hours. We recommend you call or check websites for current hours.
Acme Farms + Kitchen, 1313 N State Street, Bellingham
Appel Farms Cheese Shoppe, 6605 Northwest Road, Ferndale; 360-384-4996
Artisan Wine Gallery, 2072 Granger Way, Lummi Island; 360-758-2959
BelleWood Acres, 6140 Guide Meridian, Lynden; 360-318-7720
Bellingham Country Gardens (u-pick vegetables), 2838 East Kelly Road, Bellingham
Bellingham Farmers Market, Railroad at Chestnut; 360-647-2060
Boxx Berry Farm Store and u-pick, 6211 Northwest Road, Ferndale; 360-380-2699
Cloud Mountain Farm Nursery, 6906 Goodwin Road, Everson; 360-966-5859
Community Food Cooperative, 1220 N. Forest St. and 315 Westerly Road, Bellingham; 360-734-8158
Five Loaves Farm, 514 Liberty St., Lynden
Ferndale Public Market, Centennial Riverwalk, Ferndale; 360-410-7747
Grace Harbor Farms, 2347 Birch Bay Lynden Road, Custer; 360-366-4151
The Green Barn, 211 Birch Bay-Lynden Road, Lynden; 360-318-8869
Hopewell Farm, 3072 Massey Road, Everson; 360-927-8433
The Islander, 2106 S. Nugent Road, Lummi Island; 360-758-2190
Joe's Garden, 3110 Taylor Avenue, Bellingham, 360-671-7639
Lynden Farmers Market, Fourth and Front streets, Lynden
The Markets LLC, 1030 Lakeway, Bellingham; 8135 Birch Bay Square St., Blaine; 360-714-9797
Pleasant Valley Dairy, 6804 Kickerville Road, Ferndale; 360-366-5398
Small's Gardens, 6451 Northwest Road, Ferndale; 360-384-4637
Terra Organica, 1530 Cornwall Ave., Bellingham; 360-715-8020
Reach Whatcom Locavore columnist Nancy Ging at 360-758-2529 or firstname.lastname@example.org. To follow her day- to-day locavore activities, go to Whatcom Locavore on Facebook or @whatcomlocavore on Twitter. For locavore menus, recipes and more resources, go to whatcomlocavore.com.