Are Nondairy Milks Healthy When You Have Diabetes? Here's What Dietitians Say
Visit the dairy aisle and you may notice that the number and variety of plant-based milks and yogurts have exploded recently. (Soymilk, sure. Almond milk, OK. Pea-protein milk? What even is that?) In part, this is due to a growing interest in eating more plant-based foods, which some people are drawn to for health reasons and others for environmental concerns. As more shoppers show an interest, many grocery stores are giving more shelf real estate to dairy-free varieties, swelling the milk offerings and edging out Greek and traditional yogurts. But are these alternatives worth seeking out? It depends.
Related: Best Breakfast Foods for Diabetes
First, what are nondairy milks and yogurts?
Nondairy "milks," or plant milks, are typically made by blending nuts, grains, or legumes with water and then filtering out the solids for a smooth texture. They're essentially made in a similar way to brewing a batch of tea. Plant-based yogurts are made by adding live active cultures to plant milks so that their natural sugars can ferment—a similar process to making dairy yogurt, although nondairy yogurts also require an additional thickener or stabilizer to achieve a traditional yogurt texture.
The most common nondairy milks and yogurts are made from soy, almonds, or rice. Coconut milks and yogurts are also fairly common. And then there are the newbies, which include milks and yogurts made from oats, cashews, and pea protein. (If you're overwhelmed by all the choices, we taste-tested 64 options to find our top five nondairy milks.)
Are these choices healthier than dairy products?
There isn't a straightforward answer. "Some people hold firmly to the notion that anything plant-based is better than anything animal-based, but these categories are too broad to make such generalizations" says Jill Weisenberger, M.S., RDN, CDCES, author of Prediabetes: A Complete Guide. Truth is, it depends on what you're after. Each dairy alternative has its own nutrition profile. For instance, when compared to nonfat (skim) dairy milk, oat milk has more fiber, almond and cashew milks are lower in calories, and coconut milk has up to 4g more saturated fat per serving.
"Plant-based milks can be a great option for those who are lactose-intolerant or follow a plant-based diet, but you have to do your research when shopping," says Kelly Plowe, M.S., RD, a registered dietitian who specializes in gut health in Los Angeles. "Many of these milk [alternatives] also have varieties with added sugars, so make sure you're checking the Nutrition Facts panel." She suggests keeping an eye on protein as well. "Most nondairy milks lack protein," explains Plowe. Not only does that protein fill you up, but it also slows how fast the milk sugars are absorbed into your bloodstream.
One other drawback to these alt milks and yogurts: they are quite processed and contain more additives than your run-of-the-mill cow's milk and yogurt. That doesn't make them unhealthy, but if avoiding processed foods is a concern of yours, you might want to stick to dairy, or try making your own.
Can alt-milk products help with diabetes management?
There's no doubt that plant-based eating can offer positive outcomes for people with diabetes, including reducing blood sugar, says Toby Smithson, M.S., RDN, LD, CDCES, author of Diabetes Meal Planning and Nutrition for Dummies. However, no one has done any research yet to look at whether plant-based milks and yogurts in particular can help with diabetes management. Right now, most of the research around plant-based eating has shown the benefits of eating unprocessed vegetables, fruits, grains, and legumes.
What we do know, however, is that traditional dairy foods may be good for blood sugar management. For example, some research suggests that eating yogurt is associated with a lower risk of developing type 2 diabetes. "Researchers aren't sure why, but it might have something to do with yogurt's nutritional profile, or perhaps it's related to live active cultures in yogurt," says Weisenberger. While most alt yogurts also have live and active cultures, they often fall short on nutrients found in dairy that may help with insulin function, such as protein, calcium, and vitamin D.
How should I choose a dairy alternative?
If you decide you want to give a plant-based milk or yogurt a try, look for one that's fortified with calcium and vitamin D (milk and yogurt are the primary sources of these important nutrients for most people). "It's also important to look at portion size, as well as protein and carbohydrate counts. All plant-based milks and yogurts are not alike," says Smithson. Some, for example, are quite low in protein while others deliver what you'd get in a glass of milk—about 8 grams. Some are carb and sugar heavy, yet others have very few carbs. Reading the Nutrition Facts panel and ingredient list will help you better understand how the product you like aligns with your needs and goals. Here's how the carb and protein amounts of several popular milks break down:
Per 1 cup: CARB 7g, PROTEIN 1g
Almond Milk (sweetened)
Per 1 cup: CARB 16g, PROTEIN 1g
Per 1 cup: CARB 11g, PROTEIN 2g
Per 1 cup: CARB 12g, PROTEIN 6g
Per 1 cup: CARB 1g, PROTEIN 1g
Pea Protein Milk (sweetened)
Per 1 cup: CARB 6g, PROTEIN 8g
Per 1 cup: CARB 12g, PROTEIN 8g