Got Diabetes?

cow-1693801_1920What’s Up with Dairy Foods and Diabetes

by Melinda D. Maryniuk, MEd, RD, CDE

You’ve probably heard that dairy foods such as milk, cheese and yogurt are great sources of protein, carbohydrates and fat.  They also contain a good amount of calcium and vitamin D – making them good for bone health. (Did you know they may also have a role in diabetes prevention?)

For people with diabetes, dairy is good for you, too.  While milk and yogurt contain lactose, a kind of milk sugar or carbohydrate, they won’t spike your blood glucose.

Anthropologists think that people have been drinking and eating dairy products for 9,000 years*. But today this important food group is often forgotten:  80% of adults don’t get their recommended 3 servings /day (that’s not counting those who suffer from lactose intolerance, especially Asian Americans and Latinos).

If you’re one of the 80%, now is a good time to reconsider.

Dairy protein, fat and the glycemic index                                                              

One of diabetes’ day-to-day challenges is sticking to your meal plan. Dairy can help.  In addition to being great sources of protein, milk, yogurt and cheese can help you to feel full longer.   That’s because dairy foods offer a great combination of protein, low-glycemic carbohydrate and fat.


Interesting research is coming out showing that the type of saturated fat in dairy foods may not be as harmful as we once thought.  In fact, it seems to have a relatively neutral effect.

While there may not be specific benefits to dairy saturated fat, it does not seem to be harmful.   However, if you’re watching calories, the low-fat or non-fat varieties of milk and yogurt may still be the best choice since 1 gram of fat contains 9 calories, which is far more than 1 gram of protein or carbs, which contains 4 calories.

Carb counting with dairy

Most people with diabetes think first about carbohydrates (carbs) and plan meals based on a certain allowance of carb servings (measured in grams).  Often people avoid dairy because they want to “spend” their carb allowance on other foods.

However, given all the good reasons why dairy foods should be a regular part of your meal plan, here’s how to carb count them into your meal planning.

A cup of milk (no matter if it is whole or skim or in-between) will have 12 grams of carb (or you can round that up to 15 grams if you’re estimating).  A cup of yogurt can be variable – based on if it is plain, flavored, fruited or Greek.   Check the nutrition facts label.  But in general, one cup of plain yogurt will also have about 15 grams of carb.

Cheese contains only very small amounts of carbs but it is mostly fat, which is why most people with lactose intolerance can still eat it, especially hard cheese.  (Keep in mind that not all “milks” are alike.  Rice “milk” drink, almond milk and soymilk don’t have the same nutritional profile as dairy milk.)

Dairy foods and diabetes prevention

Emerging research from multiple different countries is showing some consistent results.  People who eat dairy foods more frequently, particularly yogurt and some fermented cheeses like blue cheese, appear to have a lower incidence of diabetes.

Why is this?  We don’t know yet.  Perhaps it has to do with their probiotics which can affect the microbiome – or the healthy bacteria that live in your gut. Stay tuned — more research is being done on this.

Joslin’s research into dairy foods

USDA guidelines recommend low fat dairy products. However, it is not clear if high fat or low fat dairy have different effects on glycemic control and other cardiovascular risk factors in patients with type 2 diabetes.

Two research studies have recently launched at Joslin that will help us better understand the role of fat in dairy foods in diabetes – particularly as it relates to weight management.

In a randomized prospective clinical study Dr. Osama Hamdy and Dr. Joanna Mitri are evaluating the effect of high-fat dairy and low-fat dairy on glycemic control, body weight and cardio-metabolic risk factors.

So, what’s the takeaway?

  1. The best meal plan should be an eating pattern that features a wide variety of whole, minimally-processed foods: vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, lean meats and fish, nuts and dairy foods.
  1. While milk and yogurt contain carbs – they have a relatively low glycemic index and won’t spike blood glucose levels. And the protein and fat content of dairy foods can help you feel full longer (and maybe even eat less!)
  1. Finally, if type 2 diabetes runs in your family, you now have one more good reason to aim for putting more dairy in your diet, as it may help in preventing type 2 diabetes.

8 tips for increasing dairy

  • Freeze yogurt in silicone cups for quick-grab snacks on a hot day
  • Cook oatmeal with milk instead of water
  • Sip a Cafe Latte
  • Substitute plain yogurt for mayo
  • Prepare dressings or dips with plain yogurt
  • Dip raw veggies into yogurt flavored with pesto, curry, cumin or mustard
  • Pop some snack cheese (such as string cheese) into your bag for a protein pick-me-up
  • Pack an extra protein punch by using Greek Yogurt

Do you need help managing your diet? Learn more about the Joslin Nutrition Programs.



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