Milk is a staple of many diets, but its carbohydrate count may have an effect on blood sugar, which may be a problem for diabetes sufferers.
Carbohydrates in Milk take the form of lactose. Lactose is a natural sugar which gives body energy. A serving of 8 ounces (oz) of milk contains 12 grams (g) of carbohydrates.
The American Diabetes Association (ADA) recommends that carbohydrate intake at meals be individualized to maintain stable blood sugar levels. Testing your blood sugar before and after meals will help you recognize which foods the body and blood sugar responds to and in what quantities.
Begin with 1 or 2 servings of carbohydrates at mealtime, or 15 to 30 g. However, there are several factors which may alter the recommended amount of milk. One cup of cow’s milk contains 12 grams of carbohydrates, equal to one meal.
The best milk for people with diabetes
For a person with diabetes, the “right” milk depends on the flavors they like, the rest of their daily diet, and their average total intake of carbohydrates.
For example, if a person wants to limit their consumption of carbohydrates as much as possible, almond and flax milk contains almost zero carbohydrates.
All cow’s milk contains carbohydrates, and for people with diabetes it is important to factor this into their carbohydrate counts. However, for people who are not lactose intolerant and prefer cow’s milk, skim milk can be a lower-fat, lower-calorie alternative.
Because of faster absorption, low-fat foods and beverages such as skimmed milk may result in higher blood sugar levels. Therefore, glucose testing may be useful in deciding whether and what sort of cow’s milk is best.
Milk and type 2 diabetes risk
Several scientific studies have tried to establish a connection between drinking milk and a reduced risk of type 2 diabetes.
A 2011 research in the Journal of Nutrition analyzed 82,000 women who had already undergone the menopause and had not been diagnosed with diabetes at the beginning of the research. The researchers have measured the consumption of dairy products, including milk and yogurt, by the participants over the course of 8 years.
They concluded the following:
“A diet high in low-fat dairy products is associated with lower diabetes risk in postmenopausal women, particularly those who are obese.”
Another 2011 research, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, tracked the relationship between adolescent dairy intake and their risk for adult Type 2 diabetes.
The researchers concluded that consuming more dairy products was associated with a reduced risk of type 2 diabetes during adolescence.
The researchers also found that adolescents with higher intake of dairy and lower diabetes prevalence later in adulthood also had lower intake of sugar-sweetened beverages and trans-fats, lower glycemic load, and less red and processed meat consumption.
Whether the resulting lower risk of diabetes was due to the dairy itself or the many other factors in the lifestyle, including regular consumption of milk into adulthood, needs further study.
A 2014 study by Swedish researchers found that a higher consumption of high-fat dairy products, including butter, yogurt, milk, cream, and cheese, was associated with a lower diabetes risk.
The researchers studied the effects of various saturated fats and concluded that a diet high in the saturated fat forms found in dairy has a protective effect against type 2 diabetes.
They also found a link between an increased risk of developing the condition and a meat-rich diet of saturated fats.
For people who already have type 2 diabetes, choosing a form of milk may entail different considerations. You may be more concerned with regulating carbohydrate intake than with fat intake.
Such findings also raise the argument that not all fats, including those present in milk, are detrimental to health.
Most forms of milk are also sold in grocery stores, including cow’s milk with varying amounts of fat, soy, flax, rice milk, and almond milks.
Nutritional information for some raising dairy options is given below. Both serving sizes are 1 cup of milk, or 8 ounces:
- Calories: 149
- Fat: 8 g
- Carbohydrate: 12 g
- Fiber: 0g
- Protein: 8 g
- Calcium: 276 mg
- Calories: 91
- Fat: 0.61 g
- Carbohydrate: 12 g
- Fiber: 0 g
- Protein: 9 g
- Calcium: 316 mg
Almond milk (unsweetened)
- Calories: 39
- Fat: 2.88 g
- Carbohydrate: 1.52 g
- Fiber: 0.5-1 g (depends on brand)
- Protein: 1.55 g
- Calcium: 516 mg
Soy milk (unsweetened)
- Calories: 79
- Fat: 4.01 g
- Carbohydrate: 4.01 g
- Fiber: 1 g
- Protein: 7 g
- Calcium: 300 mg
Flax milk (unsweetened, no protein added)
- Calories: 24
- Fat: 2.50 g
- Carbohydrate: 1.02 g
- Fiber: 0 g (depends on brand)
- Protein: 0 g
- Calcium: 300 mg
Rice milk (unsweetened)
- Calories: 113
- Fat: 2.33 g
- Carbohydrate: 22 g
- Fiber: 0.7 g
- Protein: 0.67 g
- Calcium: 283 mg
While these are only a few of the many milk choices available to people with diabetes, the nutritional quality reveals the sharp differences between different milk types.
It is important to remember that the above profiles refer to unsweetened varieties. When these milk forms contain added sugars, they contain more carbohydrates, too.
Milk may be a major source of calcium, vitamin D, and protein, thus adding to the normal consumption of fluids.
The ADA recommends low-calorie, low-carbohydrate drinks including:
- low-calorie drink mixes
- unsweetened tea
- sparkling water
Unlike the Swedish study above, the ADA recommends choosing 1 percent or fat-free milk wherever possible, while stressing the value of continuing to integrate dairy carbohydrates into the regular count.
Research into the saturated fat content of dairy products is ongoing, and milk fats do not need to be as limited as commonly believed.
When a person refuses lactose, there are other dairy alternatives available, including rice, almond, soy, flax, coconut, hemp, and cashew products.
Without milk inclusion a diet can be diverse and nutritious. Those who want to remove milk from the diet will have to find alternate calcium sources.
Many of the dairy products contains carbohydrates, including yogurt, cheese, and ice cream. Carefully read the nutrition labels for serving sizes and counts of carbohydrates.
Moderation and blood sugar control are important regardless the choice of milk.
Checking food labels for information about the serving sizes and the number of carbohydrates is also important.
Carbohydrates are found in a variety of foods, including:
- starchy vegetables, such as potatoes, peas, and corn
- fruit juices
Incorporating carbohydrates from milk into the carbohydrate count is easy to overlook because this can lead to higher than normal levels of blood sugar. It may help to calculate by talking about “carbohydrate servings.”
A common example of a dairy carbohydrate serving involves 1 cup of cow’s milk and 6 oz of yogurt. Within this meal, there are almost as many carbohydrates as in a small piece of fruit, or a slice of bread.
Can I drink milk if I have diabetes?
Drinking milk with diabetes is not a black-and-white issue. The choice is a personal one and based on many factors, including:
- activity level
- overall calorie intake
- distribution of fat intake between saturated and unsaturated fats
- intake of other beverages
- the results of blood glucose monitoring results
Overall, I tend to recommend yogurt and full-fat cheese over milk as dairy staples, due to their well-studied fermentation and lower glycemic-load benefits.
However, if a glass of milk helps you avoid a soda, juice, or other sweetened beverage, go for it! Natalie Butler, RD, LD
Answers represent the opinions of our medical experts. All content is strictly informational and should not be considered medical advice.