Meeting Carbohydrates – Dairy
Last updated: April 2022
Most dietary carbohydrate comes from plants – sugars and syrup, fruits, grains, starchy vegetables, and beans, for example. But there is one source of dietary carbohydrate that we borrow from animals, and it’s a special food produced specifically to nourish their newborns – milk.
The main carbohydrate in milk is best known because of an interesting genetic quirk. We call the inability to digest lactose (“milk sugar”) in adulthood “lactose intolerance.” But, don’t be confused. Losing the ability to digest lactose in adulthood is actually normal – the genetic quirk occurs in people who can digest lactose in adulthood. The number of people with “lactose intolerance” varies greatly by ethnicity, from only about 5% among Northern Europeans to an estimated 90% in Asian populations. But all in all, estimates are that 75% of the world’s population cannot digest lactose effectively in adulthood.
Benefits of dairy
Nevertheless, milk is a very healthy food. It contains protein and carbohydrate with minimal fat if you choose skim or 1% variety. Don’t forget there are other common foods made from milk – butter, cheeses, sour cream, and yogurt to name a few. And, the carbohydrate that remains after separating or processing milk varies greatly. Butter and cream, made from separated fat, are very low in carbohydrate. Cheeses are often low in carbohydrate too because bacteria convert the lactose in milk to lactic acid in the cheese making process and are often more tolerable for people with lactose intolerance. Sour cream and cottage cheese tend to be relatively low in carbs also, and yogurt can vary greatly. Non-dairy additions to dairy foods, like fruit or sweeteners in yogurt, can make a huge difference in carbohydrate, and be aware that low fat or nonfat milk still contains the same carbohydrate as whole milk. Always check nutrition labels for carbohydrate and fat.
Dairy protein is high quality protein, and some dairy products, especially milk, are our best sources of dietary calcium. Calcium not only contributes to strong bones, but also plays key roles in nerve and muscle function. In the U.S. milk is fortified with vitamin D, which is necessary for the efficient absorption of calcium. Milk, cheese and yogurt are the best sources of dairy calcium. Milk and dairy products can be an important part of a healthy diabetes diet as long as we count the carbohydrates.
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