What’s the Best Milk Alternative for Diabetes Management?

If you head down the refrigerated section of the grocery store, there are seemingly endless non-dairy milk options to grab. It's as if anything and everything has been transformed into a plant-based milk alternative.

How to choose the best non-dairy milk

There's almond, cashew, coconut, soy, oat, and hemp milk to name a few. These are also known as plant-based milk. Not to mention, each choice comes in a variety of flavors. Some are sweeter than others, which may make it confusing to navigate a good option for diabetes management.

So given all the options out there, here's a guide to simplify your choices, so that you can pick the best plant-based milk alternative that aligns with your health and nutrient goals.

Consider the calories

Most of the non-dairy milk varieties range between 30 to 130 calories per cup. While the difference may seem negligible, combined with other lower-calorie selections, it may lead to meaningful progress towards a weight loss or maintenance goal. After all, multiple small changes can amount to big results. But, if calories or weight loss are not your focus, choose your milk alternative based on the other defining variables below.

Check for added sugars

Most milk brands offer an original and unsweetened option, the latter eliminating added sugars. When managing blood glucose levels, it's best to opt for the unsweetened alternative, especially when consumed in larger quantities. But, if you are a sucker for the sweet, find other modifiable areas within the meal to help maintain your blood glucose within a healthy range. For those looking to make a milk swap, keep an eye on the label since the "unsweetened" label can be easily missed!

Are there any additives?

The ingredients list on alternative milk can get lengthy and unrecognizable. Gellan gum, guar gum, carrageenan, sodium benzoate, sunflower lecithin, a propionate can sound new and confusing.

These possibly unfamiliar ingredients tend to be emulsifiers, preservatives, stabilizers, or texture-enhancing compounds. While they are, "generally regarded as safe," some additives receive more health-concerned attention than others and ideally should be minimally consumed.1

For instance, carrageenan, a texture-enhancing additive, may increase the risk of inflammatory bowel disease and colorectal cancer.1 For those looking to keep additives to a minimum, do a little extra digging to find a brand that aligns with your values. However, these options get usually accompanied by a heftier price tag.

Watch for allergens

One can argue that soy was the pioneer of plant-based milk options. After all, it matches the protein in milk the closest. But it remains an allergen for some, along with other plant-based options such as almond, cashew, and macadamia.

With approximately 11 percent of the Unites States' adult population managing food allergies and an even greater prevalence of lactose intolerance, allergen-friendly milk alternatives are in high demand.2

Variable micronutrients

While each dairy-free option may fall under the umbrella term of milk alternatives, there is significant nutrition variability amongst the choices. Compared to dairy milk, plant-based/non-dairy milk options tend to be lower in calcium, vitamin A, vitamin B12, iodine, and zinc.3 When selecting a milk alternative, choose a fortified option to help meet nutritional requirements, especially for calcium and vitamin D.

Get your macronutrients

Protein, fat, and carbohydrate content are common considerations when selecting a milk alternative. While soy and pea milk provide a hearty protein source, nut and grain milk fall short.

Since protein can help stabilize blood glucose levels, a higher protein option may be helpful for those trying to manage diabetes. When it comes to fat, except for coconut milk, most plant-based selections contain minimal saturated fats. My go-to recommendation if you can’t have dairy milk is soy milk. Each brand tastes different, so don't give up after one try!

Counting carbohydrates

People who are counting carbohydrates may want to be extra considerate of their plant-based milk source since there is significant variability between choices. Sweetened milk options tend to be higher in carbohydrates, partially due to the added sugar content.

But there are milk alternatives that are higher in naturally occurring carbohydrates, such as oat and rice milk. While neither unsweetened version is considered "high-carb," their intake can destabilize blood glucose levels in higher quantities.

A summary of the tips for selecting a non-dairy milk

To summarize, these are the main tips for choosing a dairy-alternative milk that is best for you:

  • Consider the calorie content in each serving.
  • Keep an eye on the unsweetened or sweetened label.
  • Double-check for additives in the ingredients list.
  • Watch for possible allergens, especially nut-based milks.
  • Consider the micronutrient and macronutrient amounts - choose a fortified milk option.

We hope this guide helps you to take the guesswork out of picking non-dairy milk that is right for you and your diabetes management!

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