Dairy and diabetes | Eating with diabetes

Dairy and diabetes | Eating with diabetes

Milk, cheese and yoghurt

All of us, whether we have diabetes or not, need some dairy products (or non-dairy alternatives like soya products) such as milk, cheese and yogurt every day. These all contain proteins and vitamins and are an important source of calcium, which help to keep your bones, teeth, and muscles healthy.

How much per day?

Aim for 3 portions.

What’s a portion?

One portion equals:

  • 200ml (⅓ pint) milk 
  • a standard pot of yogurt (125g – 150g) 
  • 150ml unsweetened lassi 
  • 3 tbsp cottage cheese (100g) 
  • a matchbox-sized portion of cheese (30g) 
  • 30g paneer cheese 

How to make healthy dairy choices

Milk

Milk is packed with vitamins and minerals and is rich in protein, making it an important contribution to your fluid and nutrient intake, as part of a healthy and balanced diet.  

If you prefer dairy-free alternatives like plant-based milks, check products are unsweetened and fortified with calcium to support bone health.

Cheese

Cheese is a good source of protein, and it contains vitamins and minerals including calcium which are all important for health. 

Cheese is made by fermenting milk. During the fermentation process, microorganisms are produced in cheese, and these have a beneficial effect on health. Although cheese is often high in saturated fat, a type of fat that can increase your risk of heart disease, the structure of dairy changes the way this type of fat behaves in the body and the way it impacts health. The latest evidence suggests it does not seem to increase your risk of cardiovascular disease. 

Be mindful that cheese is often high in salt, and too much salt can raise your blood pressure, which is not good for your overall health. It is recommended to keep to the recommended serving size of 30g/1oz – about the size of a matchbox. 

If you are struggling to keep to the recommended portion size, you can try grating hard cheese instead of slicing it to make it go further, and opt for mature cheese as a little goes a long way due to the stronger taste. Try to include different types of cheese in your diet, such as Cheddar, Brie, Blue cheese, and soft cheese as they all have slightly different nutrients and microorganisms which are beneficial for health. 

Remember ‘at risk’ groups such as such as infants, children, pregnant women, the elderly, and those who are unwell should avoid certain dairy. These include mould-ripened soft cheeses like brie or camembert, soft ripened goats’ milk cheese like chèvre and soft blue cheese, such as Roquefort.  

These cheeses may carry bacteria called listeria and you can get an infection known as ‘listeriosis’ by eating food contaminated with listeria bacteria.  

But these cheeses can be used as part of a cooked recipe, as listeria is killed by cooking, as long as the cheese is cooked until steaming hot. 

 People ‘at risk’ of getting seriously ill from listeriosis are also advised to avoid unpasteurised cows’ milk, goats’ milk, sheep’s milk or cream and cheese made from unpasteurised goat’s milk. Find out more on listeriosis and foods to avoid.  

Yogurts and fromage frais

Yoghurt, like cheese, is produced by fermenting milk. It is a good source of protein, which helps keep your muscles healthy. It also contains vitamins such as vitamin B12, and minerals such as calcium.   

Yoghurt contains carbs from lactose, a naturally occurring sugar in milk. Some yoghurts contain good bacteria, known as probiotics. These bacteria are important for your gut and overall health.  

When choosing yoghurt or fromage frais, look at the label and choose unsweetened yogurts, which is more important than low fat options. Many flavoured and fruit yogurts contain added sugar, so choose unsweetened options like plain natural or Greek yogurt which you can top with chopped up fruit. This will help bump up your five a day fruit and veg intake. 

Dairy Q&A

Can eating yogurt prevent type 2 diabetes?

Multiple studies have found that fermented dairy products, such as yoghurt and cheese, are linked to a reduced risk of type 2 diabetes. However, we know that having obesity is the most significant risk factor in the development of type 2 diabetes, so it is important to keep to a healthy weight and follow a healthy, balanced diet.

You can find out about healthier food choices you can make to reduce your risk of type 2 diabetes.

What effect does eating dairy foods have on my blood glucose levels?

Milk and yogurts contain carbohydrate, from the lactose, and therefore will make a difference to your blood glucose levels. You may think that lactose-free milk contains no carbohydrates, however the lactose is partially broken down into two simple sugars so it will still make a difference to your blood glucose levels. It’s due to this process that lactose-free milk tastes sweeter.  

Cheese has a minimal effect on blood glucose levels since it contains very little carbohydrate.  

How does eating dairy affect weight?  

Studies looking at the relationship between dairy and weight loss have come to different conclusions, so we don’t have enough evidence to say that dairy as a whole is associated with weight loss or weight gain. However, dairy can be part of a healthy and balanced diet, and you can still eat dairy and lose weight as part of a weight loss diet.  

How does eating dairy affect cardiovascular disease?  

The research suggests that fermented dairy, like yoghurt and cheese doesn’t increase your risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD). But when it comes to butter, the saturated fat in butter is linked to raised cholesterol and an increased risk of CVD. Choose spreads made with unsaturated fats like vegetable oils.  

Is low-fat dairy better?  

Both low-fat and full-fat dairy is healthy when eaten in moderation. In fact, research shows that there is no favourable effect on health to choosing low-fat dairy over full-fat dairy products.  

Should children have lower-fat dairy products? 

Milk comes in different variations based on its fat content, such us whole milk (4% fat), semi-skimmed milk (2% fat), skimmed milk (0% fat) and 1% fat milk. There are also lower-fat variations of yoghurt and cheese.  

Children should not be given lower-fat dairy products because they may not get all the essential vitamins and energy they need from these foods. Children should be given whole milk and full-fat dairy products until they are two years old. After the age of two, children can be given semi-skimmed milk if they are eating and growing well. From the age of five, children can have 1% fat and skimmed milk.  

Do you lose the calcium in lower-fat milks?  

Lower-fat milks have just as much calcium as full-fat milk. Calcium is mostly found in the watery part of the milk, so when the fat is removed the amount of calcium stays the same.  

How much calcium do I need? 

The amount of calcium you need depends on your age and if you have certain health conditions like coeliac disease. Coeliac disease is more common in people with type 1 diabetes because both are autoimmune conditions. People with coeliac disease need more calcium than the general population to help their bone health.   

Vitamin D helps the absorption of calcium from foods. It is found in foods like oily fish and eggs, but the main source is direct sunlight. Your body makes Vitamin D under the skin when you are outside in the middle of the day in the summer months. The NHS advise that everyone should consider taking a daily vitamin D supplement during autumn and winter. 

Are plant-based milks healthy options?  

Plant-based milks such as oat, rice, almond or soy, are typically lower in protein, saturated fat, and calories than cow’s milk. They may also contain more carbohydrates but don’t contain lactose which is found in cow’s milk. Some plant-based milks are fortified with vitamin D and calcium. If you’re trying to decide which one to have, it’s important to read the labels and check it has no added sugar and is fortified with calcium and vitamin D to support bone health.