What to Know About Diabetes and Milk

Medically Reviewed by Michael Dansinger, MD on February 13, 2024
3 min read

Milk contains much-needed nutrients for a well-balanced diet. But is milk safe to drink if you have diabetes? Here’s what to know.

With type 1 diabetes, your pancreas makes little or no insulin. It’s an autoimmune disorder that usually starts suddenly during childhood. Only about 5.2% of adults have type 1 diabetes. It can be managed but not prevented.

When you have type 1, you have to offset your intake of carbohydrates (sugars, starches, and fiber that your body uses for energy) with insulin injections at each meal. This means counting carbs so you know how much insulin to use.

With type 2 diabetes, your pancreas may not make enough insulin. Or your body may not use it the way it should. It develops slowly and is closely linked with obesity. You’re also at higher risk if you:

  • Have a family history of diabetes
  • Have a history of gestational diabetes
  • Have a declining glucose metabolism
  • Are older‌
  • Are not physically active

You may also be diagnosed with gestational diabetes during pregnancy, even if you didn't have diabetes before you were pregnant. This condition usually goes away once your baby is born, but it puts you at higher risk for type 2 diabetes later in life.

Dairy is important for your diet because it’s an excellent source of calcium. But it may also be high in fat and carbs, making it risky for people with diabetes.

One cup of whole-fat milk has:

  • 152 calories
  • 7 grams of fat‌
  • 12 grams of carbohydrates‌

One cup of reduced-fat milk has:

  • 122 calories
  • 4.5 grams of fat‌
  • 12 grams of carbohydrates

One cup of low-fat milk has:

  • 106 calories
  • 2.5 grams of fat‌
  • 12 grams of carbohydrates

One cup of fat-free milk has:

  • 84 calories‌
  • Less than 1 gram of fat
  • 12 grams of carbohydrates‌

Diabetes and high-fat diets raise your risk of cardiovascular disease. By managing the fat in your diet, you can help lower this risk. Keep in mind that you want to cut unhealthy fats while eating a good amount of healthy fats. Good fats help you manage your diabetes.‌

Most of the fat in milk is an unhealthy kind. When you can, choose low-fat or fat-free milk, so you get calcium and other nutrients without the added fat.‌

The carbs in milk break down and become sugar in your bloodstream. With both type 1 and type 2 diabetes, you have to watch your carbs. Drinking too much milk may cause a spike in your blood sugar. 

By eating a consistent amount of carbs throughout the day, you can keep a steady blood sugar level.‌

If you’re diagnosed with diabetes, your doctor will probably refer you to a registered dietician. This specialist calculates the number of carbohydrates you can eat each day and then teaches you how to count carbs when you read nutrition labels.

It’s important to understand that living with diabetes isn’t as simple as counting carbs. Snacks and meals that are high in fat and protein may affect how your body digests and uses carbs.

You may start with a smaller serving of milk to see how it affects your blood sugar. Over time, you’ll understand how milk and other foods affect you personally. This can help you plan meals and know how much insulin you’ll need, or what other foods to eat or avoid with milk.

You may look for an alternative to cow’s milk if you have a lactose intolerance or dairy allergy. Dairy alternatives include:

  • Almond
  • Cashew
  • Coconut
  • Flax
  • Goat's milk
  • Hazelnut
  • Hemp
  • Macadamia nut
  • Oat
  • Pea
  • Peanut
  • Quinoa
  • Rice
  • Soy
  • Sunflower

Read the labels on each type of milk before choosing one. Be aware of added sugar. Look for fat and carbohydrate content. If possible, choose a sugar-free milk. Make sure that the milk you choose offers nutrition that fits your personal diet goals. Some, like soy, rice, quinoa, and oat milk, may have more carbs than cow’s milk.‌

You’ll also want to look for calcium and protein. If they’re not in the milk, look for ways to supplement your diet with other foods rich in these nutrients.