Milk comes in many different forms these days — from traditional cow’s milk to several plant-based alternatives. Figuring out which one is right for you when living with diabetes can be a challenge.
Whole milk contains large amounts of saturated fat and protein, while plant-based milks typically contain added sugar and lower amounts of fat. Cow’s milk also contains a naturally occurring sugar known as lactose.
But nutritional macros (proteins, fats, and carbs) only tell you part of the milk story. When you live with diabetes, how your body absorbs different milks can play a role in which may be better for you.
The reality is there’s no one-size-fits-all best milk for people living with diabetes.
When deciding what milk is best for you, you may find the following considerations helpful:
People with diabetes can definitely have milk in their diet. But it’s important to understand the nutritional values of milk and how it affects your body, including your blood glucose levels.
When adding any type of milk to your diet, you should consider the overall nutritional impact it can have. Milk typically has a lot of nutrients — like calcium and potassium — but it also contains carbs.
Whole cow’s milk can add a lot of saturated fat and calories to your diet, which you may be trying to limit.
Experts often recommend that someone with diabetes consume low fat milk and dairy. They claim a high intake of saturated fats may increase the risk of heart disease, though the topic is controversial.
There are two important numbers to understand when determining how foods will affect your blood sugar levels: glycemic index and glycemic load.
Glycemic index (GI) is a number between 0 and 100. It shows how quickly the carbs in foods and drinks you consume enter your bloodstream following a meal or snack. High numbers indicate that sugar from the foods you consume will enter your bloodstream faster, which can lead to an increase in blood sugar levels.
Fats, fibers, and proteins all factor into how quickly your blood sugar will rise, as does the actual amount of simple carbs found in each food. Serving sizes and total carbs can also play a role.
This is where glycemic load (GL) comes into effect. GL tries to correct the potentially misleading GI score by factoring in portion size. To do this:
A lower GL score suggests slower absorption of sugar into the blood, which means you may be less likely to experience an increase in blood sugar when consuming foods with a low GL score.
Remember that GI and GL are numbers assigned to a single food you’ve eaten. They don’t take into account other foods and beverages you may consume.
These numbers can change depending on several factors:
According to research in 2023, organic, full-fat milk has a low GI score of 34 and a low GL score of about 4 for a 1-cup serving. Nondairy milks have varying scores depending on the brand and type.
According to the same study:
In the study, researchers also noted that different macronutrient ratios, lactose, and how your body responds to lactose all play a role in keeping your blood sugar mostly stable when consuming milk.
They also noted that milk alternatives, such as oat or almond milk, typically have added nutrients to make them better match cow’s milk, as well as added sugars.
Yes, cow’s milk can be consumed at any time of the day, but it does contain carbs, so pay attention to how much you have and how it affects your blood sugar.
If you use plant-based milk, make sure to check carbs and added sugars.
A blood sugar spike happens when glucose builds up in your bloodstream, causing your blood sugar to increase. It may happen after eating.
Insulin is a hormone in the body that processes sugar into usable energy. If you’re living with diabetes, your body either doesn’t make enough insulin or has trouble using the insulin it makes, which can lead to high blood sugar levels.
Cow’s milk has a low GI number, so your body will not need large amounts of insulin to process it. And according to a 2019 study, milk can actually lower your blood sugar response, depending on the amount consumed.
Of course, whether your body is able to process milk effectively depends on many factors, including what else you’ve eaten, how much milk you consume, and what your blood sugar levels were before drinking the milk.
There isn’t a single “best” milk for people living with diabetes. Most unsweetened milk will not cause an unsafe increase in blood sugar levels.
You may consider checking with a doctor or dietitian about specific brands of milk. They should be able to provide you with information on how particular brands may affect your blood sugar levels. A dietitian can also help you create a diet plan that includes your preferred milk.
Medically reviewed on May 17, 2023
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