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Milk is a must-have for topping off your morning cereal, making clouds in your coffee, or washing down a spoonful of peanut butter. But if you have diabetes, don’t forget that this traditional beverage also contains carbs, which can affect your blood sugar levels.

One cup of fat-free cow’s milk has around 12 grams of carbs. There is no added sugar, just the naturally occurring lactose straight from the source.

Don’t have a cow, though — there are plenty of non-dairy milks out there with zero-to-low carbs, like unsweetened flax or almond milk.

You can continue drinking cow’s milk too, but you’ll want to test your blood glucose levels before, and two hours after, to see how much it affects you.

Remember, a glass of milk is going to affect everyone a bit differently, so there’s no set amount or ideal type of milk for everyone.

Your best bet is to work with your doctor or a registered dietitian/nutritionist to determine a daily nutrition plan that’s right for you.

If you live with type 2 diabetes, your dietary needs are specific and take a bit of daily planning. You don’t need a degree in advanced mathematics to figure it out, though.

Follow these general guidelines when it comes to choosing a milk:

  • Calcium – Adults ages 19-51 need 1,000 mg of calcium each day. One glass of low-fat cow’s milk has around 300 mg. This is one area where some alternative milks can fall behind their dairy rival. Some have only a small fraction of the calcium found in milk, while others add calcium and vitamin-D — check those nutrition facts labels.
  • Insulin, blood sugar, and carbs – Carbs have the greatest impact by far on blood sugar. If you have type 1 or type 2 diabetes, your optimal daily amount of carbs can vary. Research shows limiting carb consumption to between 25–45 percent of calories per day is effective for improving blood sugar control. For 1500 calories, this is 75–150 grams daily; for 2000 calories, this is 100–225 grams daily. There is no ideal percentage of carbs and your healthcare team can help you determine the best eating pattern.

The days are over when your biggest milk aisle decision was between skim and two percent. Now there are more alternative milks than ever before. Here’s a look at a few options.

Milk TypeCaloriesFatSat. FatCarbsProteinCalcium
(% of daily value)

Almond Breeze Unsweetened Vanilla Almond Milk (8oz)
30 cal.2g0g1g1g45%

So Delicious Unsweetened Organic Coconut Milk (8oz)
45 cal.4.5g4g1g0g10%

Silk Organic Unsweetened Soy Milk (8oz)
80 cal.4g0.5g4g7g15%

Good Karma Unsweetened Flax Milk with Omega 3 + Protein (8oz)
60 cal.3g0g1g8g30%

Here are some suggestions for enjoying alternative milks:

Unsweetened vanilla almond milk – You’ll love the nutty, creamy taste of almond milk in your breakfast cereal or smoothies.

Unsweetened coconut milk – Creamy coconut milk gives you a taste of the tropics and is perfect for pouring in your coffee. Just note that coconut milk has a higher fat content than other types of milk.

Unsweetened soy milk – Try adding it to oatmeal or blending it in a protein smoothie as a meal replacement.

Unsweetened flaxseed milk – Flaxseed is jam-packed with healthy omega-3 fatty acids. What’s not to love?

Banana really enhances the nutty flavor of flax. Blend them together with ice in a smoothie but remember to add 15-30g of carbs for a half or whole banana.

Don’t care for plain milk? The following don’t necessarily have to be avoided entirely if your individual goals for carbs and calories allow for a few more grams. But these ones are considerably more carb-loaded.

Chocolate, and other flavored milks

Chocolate milk typically has 8-10 grams of added sugar per serving. TruMoo’s Chocolate 1 percent low-fat milk has 2.5 grams of total fat, 20 grams of total carbs, and 8 grams of added sugar, for example.

Flavored milk can be a nutritious substitute when you are craving something sweet and can be used in the context of the total carb allowance for the day.

Whole milk

Whole milk is higher in calories and fat. Choosing a low-fat option will give you the same amount of calcium without the fat. For those who need to gain a few pounds, this is a good choice.

Milk is calcium-rich and can fit into your daily meal plan in a healthy way. You just need to stay conscious of nutrition labels and test your blood sugar before and after consuming new foods.

Diabetes meal planning tips

Some popular methods to discuss with your doctor or registered dietitian/nutritionist include:

  • Carb counting: Under this plan, you’ll keep close track of how many carbs you consume with each meal or snack, and the total for the day. Work with your healthcare team to determine how many carbs you need daily. One glass of fat-free or low-fat cow’s milk has around 12 grams of carbs, whereas unsweetened soy milk has just 4 grams per serving. Remember to check the nutrition label for calcium, vitamin-D, vitamin-A, potassium and other vitamins and minerals before making a choice.
  • Plate method: The plate method involves filling each plate you eat with 25 percent protein, 25 percent grains or starchy foods, and 50 percent non-starchy vegetables. This can be effective for keeping your blood glucose levels in check. Factor in beverages like milk too, which can count as both a protein and carb source.
  • Glycemic index/glycemic load: Foods with a high glycemic index or high glycemic load raise blood glucose levels quickly. A glass of low-fat cow’s milk has a glycemic index of 37 and a glycemic load of 4. Food and drinks under 55 are considered low on the glycemic index scale.

There’s a reason your parents tried to get you to drink more milk when you were a kid. It has some seriously health benefits — it’s a rich source of calcium, vitamin-D, potassium, and may even help prevent type 2 diabetes.

Research suggests a strong connection between consuming low-fat dairy and a reduced risk of type 2 diabetes.

A large-scale study even found that middle-aged individuals who consumed milk daily reduced their risk of developing type 2 diabetes by a whopping 12 percent, compared to non-drinkers. Risk of diabetes decreased as the number of servings per day increased.

Current research on milk alternatives and their effect on type 2 diabetes risk is not available.

If you’re living with diabetes, don’t give up milk if you like it. Milk provides 9 essential nutrients and can be part of a healthy diabetes eating plan.

There are lower-carb and unsweetened alternative milk options out there, including soy, almond and flax milk if you prefer.