Including dairy foods in your diet is an easy way to reap the benefits of calcium, potassium, Vitamin D and protein, as well as the complex flavor and creamy texture that milk, yogurt and cheese impart to foods. To healthfully incorporate them into your meals, here are the facts about making better choices. Be sure to check with your diabetes care team before making any changes to your meal plan.
Dairy foods do have carbs
When first learning to count carbs, some people are shocked to find that milk and yogurt have carbs. The carbs are from lactose, the naturally occurring sugar in milk. A cup of milk or an 8 ounce serving of yogurt has about 12 grams of carbs. If you prefer flavored yogurt, you can cut carbs and get a tastier treat if you add your own chopped or pureed fruit to plain yogurt. Most flavored yogurts also have added sugars, making them more of a dessert than a breakfast or snack food. Just be sure to include the carb counts of anything you may add on your own to the yogurt. (Read more here about low-carb fruit options and their serving sizes.)
Cheese is not a “free-food”
Just because cheese is very low in carbs, doesn’t mean you can eat all of it you want. Cheese can be high in calories and saturated fat, and should be eaten in small quantities. (Learn more about so-called “free foods”.)
Choose reduced-fat or whole milk cheeses
Fat-free cheeses are bland, poorly textured, and many have artificial ingredients. For more satisfying meals and snacks, I recommend choosing small portions (no more than an ounce or two) of low-fat cheeses such as sharp Cheddar, Swiss, provolone and mozzarella. Some whole milk cheeses are so flavorful that you can use them in very small amounts to flavor an entire dish. These include blue cheese, goat cheese, Parmesan, Gruyere and aged Manchego. Use about 2 tablespoons per serving of these cheeses crumbled or grated into salads, casseroles, pasta dishes or sprinkled over soups to add delicious distinctive flavor. Ricotta cheese and cottage cheese are the exceptions. Since these cheeses are not melty, like Cheddar or mozzarella, and are usually paired with other flavorful ingredients (think ricotta in a chocolate cheesecake or cottage cheese in a meaty lasagna), it’s ok to go with the fat-free versions.
Choose fat-free milk and fat-free yogurt
Both have about the same amount of carbs, but drinking a cup of fat-free (skim) milk instead of whole milk will save you about 60 calories and 5 grams of saturated fat. Choosing fat-free plain yogurt instead of whole milk yogurt only saves a few calories, but it does save 4 grams of saturated fat. For 5 grams more protein per serving, choose fat-free plain Greek yogurt. Even the fat-free version of Greek yogurt has a thick texture and tastes rich and creamy. It’s a delicious substitute for sour cream in recipes and for spooning onto a baked potato or a burrito. (Read more tips for enjoying yogurt if you live with diabetes.)
Can dairy foods – especially yogurt – protect against diabetes?
Researchers recently looked at the results of 14 studies that examined the correlation between dairy consumption and diabetes risk. They also examined the food intake of more than 190,000 health professionals for this study and found that eating one serving of yogurt a day may drop the risk of developing type 2 diabetes by 18 percent. Another study found that high-fat dairy products were protective against diabetes, but there was no link between consumption of low-fat dairy and diabetes. The bottom line is that experts are unsure of what it is about consuming dairy foods that may have a protective effect against diabetes. The American Diabetes Association and the U.S. Department of Agriculture Choose My Plate nutrition resource recommend choosing low-fat or fat-free dairy products.
What if you dislike milk?
Even if you don’t like milk or you’re lactose intolerant, you can enjoy fortified versions of almond milk, soy milk or rice milk. Choose unsweetened versions of these milks to curb carbs. Other non-dairy sources of calcium include leafy vegetables like collards, tofu and canned fish such as sardines and salmon eaten with the bones. Many commonly consumed foods are good sources of potassium, including beef, chicken, broccoli, sweet potatoes, bananas and citrus fruit. There are few natural food sources of vitamin D, which your body makes when the skin is exposed to the sun. If you don’t drink cow’s milk, look for brands of non-dairy milk that are fortified with vitamin D, or ask your diabetes care team if you should consider taking a vitamin D supplement.
Jackie Mills is the author of 1,000 Diabetes Recipes and The Big Book of Diabetic Desserts. She is also a food writer and registered dietitian who develops recipes for such national magazines as Cooking Light and Family Circle as well as for books such as The American Medical Association Type 2 Diabetes Cookbook. She was formerly the food editor at Redbook magazine. Mills is a paid contributor for The DX. All opinions contained in this article reflect those of the contributor, and not of Sanofi US, its employees, agencies, or affiliates.
© 2015 The DX: The Diabetes Experience