If you have diabetes, water is the best thing to drink, the American Diabetes Association (ADA) says. But when you're craving milk, soy milk is perfectly acceptable, as long as it's unsweetened. Cow's milk is a great source of nutrition, but it may just come down to preference.
"Milk is a staple in many people's diets around the world. It contains carbohydrates in the form of lactose. Lactose is a natural sugar that provides energy to the body and can cause blood sugars to elevate," says Hillary Hart, RDN, CDCES, registered dietitian and certified diabetes care and education specialist at the Cleveland Clinic.
To help control blood sugar, ADA says that people with diabetes can drink low-fat and fat-free milk as a healthy drink option. Unsweetened soy milk is another option if you prefer non-dairy milk.
Is Soy Milk Good for Diabetes?
According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, soy is a plant in the pea family. Soy foods have been common in Asia for thousands of years. Many benefits have been claimed for soy, but there is no evidence that soy itself is good for diabetes.
The Mayo Clinic explains that a plant-based milk like soy milk can be healthy, but nonfat skim milk is still the best choice as far as nutrition goes. The nutrition value of different soy milks can vary, so you need to check your nutrition labels. This is how soy milk compares for fat, protein, sugar and calcium:
- Skim milk has almost no fat. Soy milk can have about 2 to 4 grams of fat in a 1-cup serving. However, the fat in soy milk is healthy, unsaturated fat.
- One cup of skim milk can have a bit over 8 grams of protein. Soy milk is close, with about 7 grams.
- As long as you don't add sugar, skim milk and soy milk are equal when it comes to sugar. However, the taste of unsweetened soy milk is a turnoff for some people. You may find 4 to 20 grams of sugar in some sweetened brands.
- Skim milk has about 300 milligrams of calcium. Soy milk does not naturally have calcium, but it may have added (fortified) calcium. Skim milk has an advantage because calcium is absorbed better when it is natural.
What kind of milk is best for diabetes, you ask? Cow's milk is great as long as you don't have a milk allergy or lactose intolerance, the ADA says. Cow's milk is important for diabetes because it is a source of protein, calcium and vitamin D, which promotes healthy bones. Low or nonfat milk is preferred to reduce calories and fats.
Hart explains that if you are counting carbs, all cow's milk is the same. "When it comes to cow's milk, an 8-ounce glass has 12 grams of carbohydrates, regardless of the fat content. This means that a glass of skim milk has the same amount of carbohydrates as a glass of full-fat milk. This is an important concept if you have diabetes and monitor your carbohydrate intake."
There may also be a place in your diabetes diet for milk with some fat. "I often recommend to my patients to try full fat or 2 percent fat dairy products because of overall satiety and blood sugar response. Foods with a slightly higher fat content may slow down the body's absorption of glucose, leading to more steady blood sugars. Keep in mind, full fat and 2 percent options do contain more calories, so moderation is key," Hart says.
People with diabetes may want to experiment with different types of cow's milk and nondairy milk to see how they affect blood sugar. The best milk for a person with diabetes, Hart says, depends on their taste preference and overall daily diet.
- American Diabetes Association: “Best Beverages for People With Diabetes”
- Hillary Hart, RDN, LD, CDCES, registered dietitian and certified diabetes care and education specialist, Cleveland Clinic
- National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health: “Soy”
- Mayo Clinic: “Mayo Clinic Q and A: Dairy Milk, Soy Milk, Almond Milk — Which Is the Healthiest Choice for You?”