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Dairy Foods for Diabetes

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Dairy Foods for Diabetes

June is a month associated with many happy things: High school graduations, weddings, the first day of summer…and dairy foods. Yes, June is also known as National Dairy Month, and we have our cow friends to thank for that. (Speaking of cows, did you know that the first cows came to what is now the United States from Mexico via the Rio Grande?) Dairy foods have a number of health benefits that are important for people who have diabetes. Let’s take a look!

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Dairy foods, defined

According to the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture), “All fluid milk products and many foods made from milk are considered part of the Dairy Group.” But, for further clarification, only foods that retain their calcium content are part of the group. What’s NOT considered to be a dairy food? Cream cheese, cream, and butter aren’t — and that’s because they have little to no calcium. (You have to have calcium to be in the club!)

Diabetes prevention

If you have prediabetes or are at risk of developing type 2 diabetes, the good news is that eating healthfully, being active most days of the week for 30 minutes, and losing between 5% and 10% of your weight can significantly lower your risk of getting type 2 diabetes.

When it comes to the “eating healthfully” part, you might make a point to include dairy foods in your eating plan. Eating dairy foods — including full-fat dairy — is linked with a lower incidence of developing type 2 diabetes. Why? It’s thought that dairy foods can help with weight loss which, in turn improves insulin resistance, reduces that spare tire around your waist, and may help to increase lean muscle mass. But other components of dairy foods may also play a role in lowering diabetes risk. Researchers believe that calcium, vitamin D, dairy fat, and trans palmitoleic acid (a type of fatty acid found in milk, yogurt, and cheese) also play a role in increasing insulin sensitivity; trans palmitoleic acid also helps to lower triglycerides (a type of blood fat), fasting insulin, blood pressure, and C-reactive protein, which is a marker of inflammation.

Lower blood pressure

Diabetes and blood pressure practically go hand in hand; two out of three people report having high blood pressure or take medication to lower their blood pressure, says the American Diabetes Association. High blood pressure puts you at risk for heart disease, stroke, and kidney problems.

Studies have shown that eating lower-fat dairy foods can lower blood pressure. In one study, for example, people who ate more than three servings of dairy foods daily had a systolic blood pressure (the top number) that was 2.6 points lower than those who ate less than half a serving of dairy daily. These researchers also discovered that people who ate the most dairy had a 36% lower chance of high blood pressure compared with people who ate the least amount of dairy.

Why would dairy foods lower blood pressure?

One reason may be calcium. Calcium regulates blood vessel narrowing and widening through its actions on smooth muscle in artery walls; these actions, in turn, help to regulate blood pressure. Some research indicates that consuming 1,000 to 1,200 mg of calcium daily may be helpful in preventing and treating hypertension, according to the Linus Pauling Institute. Interestingly, calcium from food sources has more of a blood pressure lowering effect than calcium supplements. If you’re familiar with the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) eating plan for blood pressure prevention and control, you’ll recall that lower-fat dairy foods are part of the mix, along with fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean protein foods.

Lower heart disease risk

People who have diabetes have a higher risk of heart disease, and are more likely to die from heart disease, than people without diabetes. Keeping blood sugars, blood pressure, and cholesterol in a safe range are important steps to lower heart disease risk. Drinking milk may be another way to help lower the risk.

In a study published in the International Journal of Obesity in May 2021, researchers from the University of Reading in the UK found that people who had a higher milk intake had lower levels of both good and bad cholesterol, and a lower risk of heart disease compared to people who don’t drink milk. Even if you’re not a fan of milk, including cheese or yogurt in your diet appears to lower the risk of heart disease and stroke, based on a 2018 study in the journal The Lancet.

How might milk help your heart? Again, thank calcium. Calcium increases the activity of lipase, an enzyme that breaks down fats and helps lower cholesterol.

Making it happen: including dairy in your diet

How do you include dairy foods in your eating plan? Here are some tips to help you out:

  • If you drink or use milk, go for low-fat (1%) rather than skim or whole milk. Skim milk is essentially fat free and the lactose in skim milk can quickly raise blood sugars. Whole milk and 2% milk are high in saturated fat, which raise cholesterol levels.
  • If cow’s milk doesn’t agree with you, try calcium-fortified soy or pea milk.
  • Eat plan Greek yogurt in place of regular yogurt for a protein boost. Shy away from sweetened yogurts.
  • Nibble on string cheese, which is a low-carb source of protein.
  • Read the Nutrition Facts labels of all dairy foods — check for serving size, total carb grams, and saturated fat grams to ensure you make healthy choices that help keep your blood sugars in range.

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

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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