Once upon a time, I was a slender seventeen-year-old who decided to spend a year in a seaside Crimean town on a student exchange. Given the local emphasis on nonprocessed food, I planned on maintaining my relatively healthy diet from the States—and suspected that maybe it would even improve. But that quickly changed the moment I landed.
Everyday, I ate as if I was preparing for an imminent famine: For breakfast, my Russian host grandmother fed me a stack of thin pancakes smothered in sour cream and honey; for lunch, I indulged in street pies stuffed with meat or jelly, while my nights were spent double-fisting saccharine-fueled drinks from a can. By month three, I couldn’t fit into my pants. I was exhausted, breaking out, and bloated. How could the buttons be popping off my clothes in a country where my classmates were naturally wisp-thin?
Finally, I asked my host mother for help. Her prescription? Two daily glasses of kefir—a bitter-tasting yogurt milk drink that she claimed would subside any late-night cravings, and simultaneously help me squeeze back into my jeans. I did some basic research—the fermented drink was a staple in all of the post-Soviet countries and originally hailed from the Caucasus region. It dotted every health section of Russian women’s magazines with diagrams of intestines and mentions of bacteria and probiotics. My best friend Tanya swore by it, my host father gulped it, and it was just as common as milk in the grocery store. I started drinking it—and it helped. I no longer crammed my face with fried cheese curd patties on late nights, and didn’t feel as puffy on a day-to-day basis.
There was something about kefir that worked for me—and still does, though, now in my twenties and living in a Russian-speaking enclave of Queens, I simply drink it out of habit—heading to the local minimart with my Belarusian roommate to pick up liters of it on a regular basis.
Apparently I’m not the only one who is reaching for a bottle. Recently, the healthy snack has been turning up everywhere from cafés like Brooklyn’s Sun In Bloom to the shelves of local organic California grocers. It’s at Whole Foods in flavors from pomegranate blueberry to vanilla, and, more recently, it’s even been spotted in the form of coconut milk and water.
So why the sudden embrace of the drink stateside? It comes down to the fact that kefir is a probiotic, which means that it contains plenty of “good” bacteria and yeasts that are necessary for the health of the gut. “It’s nourishing to the digestive system, ” says the Vancouver-based nutritionist In general, as Americans, she explains, “we eat a lot of processed, radiated food that has lost its natural bacteria. Kefir helps give [an immunity boost]. It’s also high in protein, so it adds a lot of benefit in the day.”
As for my Russian mother’s claim that kefir relieves bloating, and can stabilize weight? It’s not so far off. “Your weight is hugely affected by how healthy your digestive system is. Kefir is good for your intestines, which leads to the decreasing of the ailments like bloating, ” explains Reuben. And though it is a dairy product, it’s not strictly off-limits for those who are mildly lactose intolerant. “The bacteria eats the lactose, so for people that are lactose intolerant, it’s easier for them to digest, ” says Reuben. Those who struggle with dairy, she adds, could try drinking it “in a nondairy form in cultured coconut water or coconut milk.”
As for when to drink kefir? “It’s a good thing to have at the beginning of the day, so you start off with a dose of probiotics and can digest everything well afterward, ” she says, adding that for those who don’t have time for breakfast, it can coat the stomach with a protective layer—especially if you plan on reaching for coffee on an empty stomach. “It also works as an evening snack, ” says Reuben, who adds that “a small glass to curb hunger is better than reaching for cheese or crackers at 9:00 p.m.” Kefir twice a day? Sounds like my Russian host mother was onto something.