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Dairy and diabetes

Milk, cheese and yoghurt

All of us, whether we have diabetes or not, need some dairy products (or non-dairy alternatives like soya products) such as milk, cheese and yogurt every day. These all contain proteins and vitamins and are an important source of calcium, which help to keep your bones and teeth strong.

Some dairy foods, however, can be high in fat and saturated fat, so choose lower-fat alternatives where you can.

Adults and older children who consume too much fat may find they gain weight and too much saturated fat can cause your cholesterol levels to rise, which increases your risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD). Unfortunately, diabetes increases your risk of having CVD, so it pays to opt for the lower-fat options to help manage your risk.

How much per day?

Aim for 3 portions.

What's a portion?

One portion equals:

  • 190ml (⅓ pint ) milk
  • a small pot of yogurt
  • 2 tbsp cottage cheese
  • a matchbox-sized portion of cheese (30g)

How to make healthy dairy choices

Milk

Switching to lower-fat milk, such as semi-skimmed milk (green top) from whole milk (blue top), which contains the most fat, is a good start. To make even more of a difference, try 1 per cent fat milk (orange top) or even better skimmed milk (red top). Lower-fat milks have all the goodness of whole milk, including calcium, all you lose is the fat.

This table shows the savings you could make. The figures are for 100ml but bear in mind a pint is 568ml, which many of us consume each day on cereal and in cups of tea and coffee. It shows how the savings can really add up.

Milk Kcal /100ml Fat /100ml Saturated fat /100ml Carbohydrate /100ml Of which sugars /100ml Salt /100ml
Whole 64 3.6 2.3 4.7 4.7 0.1
Semi-skimmed 50 1.8 1.1 4.8 4.8 0.1
1% fat 43 1 0.7 4.9 4.9 0.1
Skimmed 35 0.1 < 0.1 5 5 0.1

To help you see if your favourite milk or cheese (see table below) is low, medium or high in fat, saturated fat, total sugars and salt we have colour coded the information in the table in line with government guidelines. The colour coding tells you if the product has low (green), medium (amber) or high (red) amounts of fat, total sugar and salt per 100g or 100ml.

Cheese

Cheese can be high in fat and salt, so keep a check on your portion sizes. The recommended serving size is 30g/1oz – about the size of a matchbox.

Cheese

Cheeses such as Cheddar, Leicester, Gloucester, Lancashire, Brie, Blue cheese and Edam are all high in fat, typically containing between 20­–40g fat per 100g. Remember when looking at labels, that foods with more than 17.5g of fat per 100g are considered high-fat foods.

Cheese can also be high in salt (more than 1.5g per 100g is considered high) and too much salt can raise your blood pressure, which is not good for your overall health.

If you love cheese, opt for Brie, Edam and reduced fat-hard cheeses, eg ‘lighter Cheddar’, which are lower in fat compared to Blue cheeses, such as stilton and regular hard cheeses, but remember they still are high in fat and saturated fat so keep an eye on that portion size.

It pays to shop around, as the ‘reduced-fat’ cheeses can vary considerably typically ranging from 10 to 22g fat per 100g so again check the labels. For even healthier alternatives, try cottage cheese, Quark and reduced-fat cream cheeses which are lower in fat and salt.

Make hard cheese go further by grating it instead of slicing and opt for mature cheese as a little goes a long way due to the stronger taste.

This table highlights the differences in fat between some of the popular cheeses.

Cheese Kcal /100g Fat /100g Saturated fat /100g Carbohydrate /100g Of which sugars /100g Salt /100g
Stilton 410 35 23 1.7 0.7 2.0
Cheddar 416 34.9 21.7 0.1 0.1 1.8
Brie 352 30.7 20.7 1.7 0.7 1.0
Edam 318 23.7 15.8 0.1 0.1 2.5
Lighter cheddar 311 21.8 14.9 0.1 0.1 1.8
Half-fat cheddar 273 15.8 9.9 0.1 0.1 1.7
Light cream cheese 152 11 7.2 5.1 5.1 0.8
Natural cottage cheese (6% fat) 110 6.1 3.7 4.6 2.3 0.6
Quark 68 0.3 0.2 3.8 3.8 0.1

Yogurts and fromage frais

Yogurts and fromage frais can vary widely in their fat content, too, so check the label and go for the lower-fat options. Bear in mind, though, that food manufactures sometimes replace the fat with added sugar to compensate for the change in taste and texture after the fat is removed. A 150g pot of yogurt or fromage frais can often contain 20g of added sugar (equivalent to 5 tsps) in addition to the 6–12g of lactose – the natural sugar already in milk.

A good option is natural yogurt or low-fat Greek yogurt which you can sweeten by adding chopped fruit, which will also help bump up your five a day fruit and veg intake.

Dairy Q&A

Can eating yogurt prevent Type 2 diabetes?

A study published in 2014 looked at the link between eating yogurt and the risk of developing Type 2 diabetes and it found that people who ate large amounts of yogurt cut their risk of developing Type 2 diabetes. However, the length of the study was too short to draw any firm conclusions, despite being reported as such in many newspapers. More research is needed before we can change our advice. What we do know is that the best way to reduce your risk of Type 2 diabetes is by maintaining a healthy weight, being physically active and eating a healthy, balanced diet that’s low in salt, fat and sugar.

What effect does eating dairy foods have on my blood glucose levels?

The glycaemic index (GI) tells us whether a food raises blood glucose levels quickly, moderately or slowly. This means it can be useful to help you manage your diabetes. Carbohydrates are digested and absorbed at different rates, and GI is a ranking of how quickly each carbohydrate-based food and drink makes blood glucose levels rise after eating them. Milk and other dairy food generally have a low GI because of the moderate GI effect of the lactose (natural sugar in milk), plus the effect of the milk protein, which slows down the rate of stomach emptying.

Should children eat low-fat dairy foods?

Children should be given whole milk and dairy products until they are two years old because they may not get all the essential vitamins they need from lower-fat dairy products. Don’t give children skimmed milk until they are at least five years old.

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