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Milk and Blood Sugar: Everything You Need to Know About Consuming Dairy

Written by
Brooke McKelvey
Team Nutrisense
Reviewed by
Amanda Donahue
MS, RD, CD
a glass of milk and two eggs

Dairy is a pretty hot topic these days! Dairy products are made from the milk of a lactating animal [usually cows], such as milk, yogurt, and cheese. Some of us are old enough to remember all those stories about how milk would help us with all sorts of things—keep us in tip-top shape, help our bones get stronger... But there's recently been some debate around that idea. As a result, many people are beginning to go plant-based or sticking with dairy alternatives. 

For most of human history, though, civilizations have counted on the nutrients and fat from dairy products to nurture themselves and grow stronger. Still, it's important to remember that there's no one-size-fits-all, and what's good for one person may not be suitable for another, and vice versa. So don't cut anything out of your diet without consulting a healthcare professional first. But just so you can be as well-informed as possible—how much do you really know about your health and dairy? And what effect do the carbohydrates in milk have on our blood sugar levels? Read on to find out more. 

Dairy's Impact on Blood Glucose Levels

A woman pouring milk from a plastic bottle into a bowl

Blood glucose, or blood sugar, levels are crucial in maintaining good health. Glucose is produced when your body breaks down carbohydrates in your digestive system. Glucose is stored in your liver and muscles as glycogen. The Pancreas secretes hormone insulin to get glucose out of your bloodstream and into cell to be utilized for energy or storage.

When you ingest and have too much blood sugar in your system, you can experience hyperglycemia. When you have too little, you can experience hypoglycemia. Hyperglycemia is also caused by the body having too little insulin or not being able to properly use its insulin. 

Monitoring blood glucose levels is often associated with diabetes. Still, it is essential even for people that do not have diabetes to understand if they have too much or too little glucose in their bloodstream. While this can differ among people, "normal" blood glucose levels after fasting are usually considered to be around between 70-90mg/dL while fasting or less and 140 mg/dL or less after eating. If your blood sugar levels are not correctly balanced, you could begin to experience a range of health problems

Another thing to note is that all dairy products contain carbohydrates. The amount of carbohydrates varies in different dairy products with varying fat levels. Lactose, present in milk, is a type of carbohydrate. So you could see your blood sugar levels rise slightly when you consume dairy products. However, dairy products also contain fats and proteins, which can help prevent blood sugar spikes. Confused? Here's an example: You may see a smaller spike in your blood glucose levels when you consume whole milk than 1% milk, thanks to those fats and proteins in whole milk. 

Dairy and Insulin Resistance

a glass jar of milk, brown eggs, a measuring jug of milk, a cup of cream and fermented milk

Dairy has been found to result in increased insulin resistance. A study published by the United States National Library of Medicine found that dairy had a notable effect on insulin resistance among middle-aged non-diabetic women. It also led to a rise in insulin resistance. Another study released by the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition showed that people who consumed high-fat dairy products were less likely to develop Type 2 diabetes. 

There is conflicting evidence regarding dairy and blood glucose, and research is still ongoing. For the moment, it seems that people need to consider dairy in their diets on a case-by-case basis, experimenting to discover if their bodies handle it well. An excellent way to do this is with the help of a CGM

So, Is Dairy Good or Bad For Us As It Relates to Blood Glucose?

A spoon with cheese on a white backdrop

Dairy can be good for our health, but as with most things, remember that it's best to consume it in moderation. Of course, everyone's body responds differently to different foods, so even though it contains a significant amount of carbohydrates, there's no blanket rule here. 

Because there is so much conflicting information from all the studies about dairy, it's hard to make a concrete decision regarding adding or avoiding dairy. One way to determine whether it's good or bad for blood glucose is to see how your body responds. 

You can use a tool like a continuous glucose monitor (CGM) to track your blood sugar levels when you consume dairy. It's also a good idea to work with a health professional like a registered dietitian, who can help you understand all the CGM data and how dairy affects your system. 

Some Health Benefits of Milk & Dairy 

A jar of milk on a green backdrop with some thumbnails on 'some health benefits of milk and dairy' 1) calcium 2) protein 3) dental health 4) vitamins and nutrients 5) digestive health


If your body responds well to dairy, it can add several valuable nutrients and vitamins to your diet. Here's an overview of a few: 

Calcium

Dairy can provide calcium to help strengthen your bones. It may offer more calcium than other common calcium-rich foods. Calcium provided by the food you ingest can be more effective for bone health than supplements. 

Protein

Dairy is packed with protein. There are two types of protein found in dairy products, whey protein, and casein. 

Digestive Health

Fermented foods, including yogurt and kefir, are good sources of probiotics that are important for gut health. Probiotics help the good bacteria in your gut stay balanced and healthy.

Vitamins and Nutrients

Dairy products also contain many necessary vitamins such as potassium, phosphorus, magnesium, and zinc. 

Dental Health

Your teeth, like your bones, can benefit greatly from the calcium content in dairy products. 

Exploring Common Milks, Dairy Products, Milk Substitutes, and Blood Sugar

An aerial shot of almonds falling into milk

Now that you know a bit about dairy, what it contains, and how your body may respond, here's more information about some common kinds of milk and milk substitutes. Remember that not everyone responds well to all milk substitutes. So don't make any drastic changes to your diet without consulting a healthcare professional and monitoring how your body responds to different types. 

Whole Milk

If you're going to enjoy a glass of milk or use milk to make something, whole milk may be the most blood glucose-friendly option for some people. The higher fat content in whole milk will slow the sugar uptake from the carbs in lactose. 

Nutritional Information

[per one cup]

  • 149 calories 
  • 8 grams of fat 
  • 12 grams of carbohydrates
  • 8 grams protein
  • 0 grams fiber 
  • 12 grams sugar 

Skim (And Low-Fat) Milk

A cup of milk besides baked goods

If you want to lower your calorie count by consuming skim milk, you should know that the lower fat content may leave some more vulnerable to a blood sugar spike. If you aren't pairing the milk with other proteins or fats, consider opting for whole milk instead. 

Nutritional Information

[per one cup]

  • 83 calories 
  • 0.2 grams of fat 
  • 12 grams of carbohydrates 
  • 8.3 grams of protein 
  • 0 grams of fiber 
  • 12 grams of sugar 

Oat Milk

Oat milk is a popular alternative to dairy, and it contains healthy fats. But some types may contain added sugars and flavorings, so read the labels when you're buying it at the store. Oat milk is typically higher in carbohydrate count and lower in protein than regular milk. Read the label and reach for an unsweetened and unflavored carton for the best nutrition.

Nutritional Information

[per one cup/ unsweetened]

  • 130 calories
  • 1 gram of fat
  • 29 grams of carbohydrates
  • 2 grams of protein
  • 1.5 grams of fiber
  • 19 grams of sugar 

Almond Milk

A jar of milk near a stack of cookies

Like oat milk, almond milk is not technically dairy but a popular alternative to it. Almond milk has a lower carbohydrate count than whole and skim milk, but it contains less protein. Many types of almond milk are flavored and sweetened, so make sure that you read the labels when selecting this type at the store.

Nutritional Information

[per one cup/ unsweetened]

  • 56 calories
  • 2.5 grams of fat
  • 8.1 grams of carbohydrates
  • 1.1 gram of protein
  • 0.6 grams of fiber
  • 7.2 grams of sugar 

Soy Milk

Soy milk is not for everyone (if you have a soy allergy, for example). If your body tolerates it, it can be an excellent alternative to dairy. Soy milk contains more protein than dairy milk and contains essential amino acids.

Scientists have found that consuming soy products is linked to improved glucose tolerance. It's also rich in calcium, much like dairy. If you're looking for a close alternative to dairy, this may be the one. Soy milk is often sweetened and flavored, so read the labels before buying a carton.

Nutritional Information

[per one cup/ unsweetened]

  • 100 calories
  • 4 grams of fat
  • 5 grams of carbohydrates
  • 10 grams of protein
  • 1 gram of fiber
  • 0 grams of sugar 

Rice Milk

A person holding a glass of milk

Another popular alternative to dairy, this plant milk is usually naturally sweeter than other dairy alternatives. Still, rice milk is high in carbohydrates and lower in protein levels, so it may not be the perfect alternative to dairy if you are concerned about regulating blood sugar. 

Nutritional Information

[per one cup/ unsweetened]

  • 113 calories 
  • 2.3 grams of fat
  • 22 grams of carbohydrates
  • 0.7 grams of protein
  • 0.7 grams of fiber
  • 13 grams of sugar 

Yogurt

Plain yogurt is a good source of probiotics. If you opt for plain yogurt, you may be able to avoid too many dairy-related blood sugar spikes. Greek yogurt contains the greatest amount of protein. Full fat yogurt has more fats and protein, so if you don’t mind the calories it is the better option for your blood sugar levels. Again, you should read the labels and opt out of the flavored, sweetened yogurts.

Nutritional Information

[per one cup/ unsweetened]

  • 45 calories 
  • 2.3 grams of fat
  • 0 grams of carbohydrates 
  • 4 grams of protein
  • 1 gram of fiber
  • 0 grams of sugar

Cheeses

A cheeseboard with types of cheeses and a bowl of olives

Cheese is high in protein and low in carbohydrates. There are so many different types of cheese that it's impossible to give you any blanket advice on the nutritional content here. As an example, here are some facts about cheddar cheese.

Nutritional Information

[1oz of cheddar cheese]

  • 115 calories
  • 9.4 grams of fat
  • 0.9 grams of carbohydrates
  • 6.5 grams of protein
  • 0 grams of fiber
  • 0.1 grams of sugar 

Ice Cream

Arguably one of the most exciting forms of dairy, it's usually best to consume this one in moderation! Ice cream can have several added sugars, flavors, cookies, and candies mixed in, which will raise the likelihood of a blood sugar spike. Vanilla ice cream may be the "safest" option, and some vanilla is naturally derived, containing less sugar.

Nutritional Information

[1 cup vanilla ice cream]

  • 273 calories
  • 15 grams of fat 
  • 31 grams of carbohydrates
  • 4.6 grams of protein
  • 0.9 grams of fiber
  • 28 grams of sugar

Other Fermented Dairy [Kefir]

A jar of milk with a measuring cup of milk and a wooden spoon over it with kefirt


Some studies show links between kefir and lower fasting blood sugar, likely because of its probiotic properties. It can be a good dairy option for people trying to regulate their blood sugar levels. 

Nutritional Information
  • 112 calories
  • 2.2 grams of fat
  • 12 grams of carbohydrates
  • 11 grams of protein
  • 0.1 gram of giber
  • 12 grams of sugar 

Whey Protein Powder

Whey protein is derived from milk. It is often sold as a nutritional supplement. There is whey protein concentrate and whey protein isolate. Generally, whey isolate has a higher protein content and lower carbohydrate and fat content. Research has found a link between whey consumption and increased insulin production. It may also reduce blood sugar spikes when consumed alongside foods rich in carbohydrates. It's a good idea to consult with a healthcare professional before introducing new foods or supplements into your diet.

Nutritional Information [Optimum Nutrition Gold Standard Whey Protein, 1 Scoop]
  • 120 calories
  • 1.5 grams of fat
  • 3 grams of carbohydrates
  • 24 grams of protein
  • 1 gram of fiber
  • 1 gram of sugar 
Related Article

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