Can People With Diabetes Drink Kefir?

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Can People With Diabetes Drink Kefir?

If you’ve perused the refrigerated section of your local grocery store lately, you may have come across bottles of a beverage called kefir (pronounced KEE-fur). You might not be familiar with this drink, or if you are, maybe you’re wondering what it is and if it’s something that’s good for you. What exactly is kefir and is it something that you should try?

History of kefir

Kefir has a bit of an interesting backstory. This ancient beverage has been around for thousands of years, and given that, there are a lot of stories (and legends) behind it. The website culturedfoodlife.com notes that once such legend is that Abraham “credits his long life to this fermented milk.” Or that Noah was given kefir from an angel to sustain him.

We can’t know if these legends are true or not, but historians seem to agree that we can thank the mountain people of the North Caucasus (the region between Russia and Georgia) who herded goats and cattle and stored their milk in leather skins with kefir “grains.” It’s thought that these grains were given as a gift by the Prophet Muhammad. These “Grains of the Prophet” were carefully guarded and represented a family’s wealth; like any family valuables, they were passed on from generation to generation. From a scientific standpoint, it’s thought that kefir grains were formed from adding and removing milk from the animal skins; this process formed a “symbiotic colony of yeast and bacteria in the form of small gelatinous grains,” says the website Revolution Fermentation.

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What is kefir?

As noted above, kefir is a fermented milk beverage made from kefir grains. It can be made from the milk of cows, goats, or sheep. (Kefir can also be made from water. Water kefir, also called tibicos, likely originated in the late 1800s and is made by soaking kefir grains in sugared water, resulting in a fizzy, fermented drink).

With kefir made from milk, the bacteria and yeast in the grains ferment the milk, transforming it into a beverage that tastes a lot like yogurt. Unlike yogurt, however, kefir has a thinner consistency, and it contains many different types of bacteria (and yeast) from yogurt. Like yogurt, kefir contains “good” bacteria, called probiotics, that can help digestion, and even make it easier to digest milk. This means that some people who have difficulty digesting the lactose in milk may be able to drink kefir.

Kefir comes ready-made and you’ll find it in grocery and health-food stores. It’s usually available in a variety of flavors, ranging from strawberry to watermelon to pumpkin spice. And it’s available in plain, too.

You can also try your hand at making your own kefir. To do this, you’ll need kefir grains (these are not grains as you may know them, such as wheat, oats, or rye, and they don’t contain gluten). Kefir grains can be purchased online — try culturesforhealth.com to buy the grains, as well as directions for making this beverage.

Health benefits of kefir

Kefir can promote digestive health, and some research suggests that it might also help with:

However, some of the research done with kefir has been done in test tubes or animals, so it’s too soon to definitely know kefir’s benefits until human studies are done.

Possible side effects and safety concerns

As with any food containing probiotics, including yogurt and kombucha (a fizzy, fermented drink), it’s not uncommon to have side effects from kefir, including bloating, gas, cramps, nausea, diarrhea, and/or constipation. These side effects generally tend to disappear over time, but if they don’t or if they worsen, stop drinking kefir and if you’re concerned, contact your health care provider.

The Cleveland Clinic recommends using caution when using any foods or supplements that contain probiotics, as there is a risk of infection in some people, including those who have:

  • A weakened immune system
  • A serious illness
  • Recently had surgery

Talk with your health care provider before using kefir or taking probiotic supplements if you have any of the above issues. Also, check with your child’s pediatrician before giving kefir or other probiotic foods or supplements to your child.

Kefir nutrition

While kefir can seem like a promising “health” beverage, it’s important to pay attention to the type and amount of kefir that you consume. Sweetened kefir will contain more carbohydrate (and calories) than plain, unsweetened kefir, and carbs from any flavor need to be figured into your own carb goals.

For comparison, here is nutrition information for a variety of flavors from Lifeway Kefir:

Nonfat plain, unsweetened, 1 cup:

  • 90 calories
  • 0 grams saturated fat
  • 9 grams carbohydrate
  • 0 grams added sugars
  • 10 grams protein
  • 120 milligrams sodium

Low-fat plain, unsweetened, 1 cup:

  • 110 calories
  • 1.5 grams saturated fat
  •  9 grams carbohydrate
  • 0 grams added sugars
  •  10 grams protein
  • 125 milligrams sodium

Low-fat strawberry banana, 1 cup:

  • 140 calories
  • 1.5 grams saturated fat
  • 18 grams carbohydrate
  • 8 grams added sugars
  • 10 grams protein
  • 125 milligrams sodium

Whole milk raspberry, 1 cup:

  • 170 calories
  • 5 grams saturated fat
  • 18 grams carbohydrate
  • 8 grams added sugars
  • 8 grams protein
  • 115 milligrams sodium

Not surprisingly, plain, unsweetened kefir has fewer calories and carbs than flavored versions. And the higher the fat content, the higher the calories and saturated fat content, too. As with any milk-based beverage, kefir is a good source of calcium, vitamin D, and potassium.

Using kefir

Kefir may be an option for you if you are looking to include probiotics in your diet. Here are some tips and considerations to get you started:

  • Read the Nutrition Facts label for serving size and total carb grams to determine how to fit kefir into your eating plan. A plain, low-fat, or nonfat kefir may be the best option in terms of controlling for carbs and limiting saturated fat.
  • If you are lactose-intolerant, you may find that you can “tolerate” kefir. However, if you have a milk allergy, avoid kefir made with any kind of animal milk. Some kefir is made with nondairy milks, such as coconut milk; kefir made with water can also be an option.
  • Kefir can be substituted for milk. Try using it on cereal, in smoothies, and in baking and cooking, too.
  • Love ranch dressing? Make your own using kefir. Try this recipe from Lifeway.

Want to learn more about eating well with diabetes? Read “Improving Your Recipes: One Step at a Time,” “Top Tips for Healthier Eating” and “Cooking With Herbs and Spices.”

Amy Campbell, MS, RD, LDN, CDCES

Amy Campbell, MS, RD, LDN, CDCES

Amy Campbell, MS, RD, LDN, CDCES on social media

A Registered Dietitian and Certified Diabetes Educator at Good Measures, LLC, where she is a CDE manager for a virtual diabetes program. Campbell is the author of Staying Healthy with Diabetes: Nutrition & Meal Planning, a co-author of 16 Myths of a Diabetic Diet, and has written for  publications including Diabetes Self-Management, Diabetes Spectrum, Clinical Diabetes, the Diabetes Research & Wellness Foundation’s newsletter, DiabeticConnect.com, and CDiabetes.com

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