Yogurt for Diabetics: Real vs. Unproven Benefits

Because many yogurts are protein-rich and low-carb, they can enhance your diabetes management plan.

If you have diabetes or are at risk for it, incorporating yogurt into your everyday diet may prove beneficial. Yogurt, one of the most commonly consumed types of fermented dairy products, can help you feel fuller and stave off hunger because yogurt is relatively high in protein and low in sugars. As a result, yogurt can be a great food option if you’re focusing on managing your weight. All of these attributes correlate with blood glucose stability, always a vital element of diabetes management. However, certain claims that yogurt’s probiotic features can markedly improve health outcomes has not been borne out by the science.  

What is yogurt?

Humans have been eating yogurt for more than 5,000 years, and many cultures (from the Indian Dahi to the Middle Eastern and European Kefir to Icelandic Skyr) have their own version. 

The word yogurt comes from the Turkish word, yoğurt, which means “to condense” or “to intensify.” Yogurt is a fermented milk product made by heating milk and then adding a yogurt cultures starter, a bacterial mix typically composed of the two species Lactobacillus bulgaricus and Streptococcus thermophilus. These bacteria ferment the milk sugars — called lactose — to produce lactic acid, resulting in a thick, tangy and tasty mixture that contains probiotic bacteria.

Regular yogurt vs. Greek yogurt

Conventional yogurt and Greek yogurt use the same ingredients and production process except for one big difference: Greek yogurt is strained to remove liquid whey and lactose (milk sugars), giving it a thicker and creamier texture than regular yogurt.

Because of this process, Greek yogurt has more protein and fewer carbohydrates/sugars than other yogurts. However, on a per-serving basis, a plain 2% Greek yogurt will have more calories than its plain regular counterpart, although this differs from brand to brand. 

Both types of yogurt are naturally low on the glycemic index (GI), which means they have a lower tendency to spike blood sugar levels relative to other carbohydrate foods. However, within each type, beware the significant variations in the “health quality” of various flavor formulations: ones with various mix-ins (even fruits) may contain a high amount of added sugars.

Is yogurt good for you?

Studies show that a high-protein, low-sugar yogurt can lead to reduced hunger, increased fullness and ultimately, decreased caloric intake — all of which can play an integral part in weight loss and blood glucose stability. These dietary benefits are particularly important for helping to prevent the onset of type 2 diabetes and for managing existing cases of diabetes.

However, the probiotic features of yogurt, often touted for a broad array of medical benefits, have not been shown to confer significant benefits to people who are already healthy. Furthermore, a major clinical research review concludes that consumption of probiotic yogurts does not result in significantly better glycemic markers in patients with diabetes or obesity.

Does yogurt lower blood sugar?

The short answer: No. However, because most yogurts are relatively high in protein and low in sugar, adding yogurt to your meal may help you avoid insulin spikes from other foods and therefore assist in keeping your blood glucose levels steady. 

While conventional and Greek yogurts provide similar glycemic responses, Greek yogurt has a few properties that make it a slightly better option for diabetics: it’s lower in carbohydrates and higher in protein. The fewer the carbohydrates, the less insulin your body needs to produce in response to your meal; and, the higher the protein, the slower the rate of digestion, which also slows the rate at which glucose is released into your bloodstream. Learn more about glucose control and your best food options: How Protein, Fat, Carbs, and Fiber Impact Blood Sugar

Can yogurt improve gut health?

Yogurt contains probiotic bacteria, which are defined by the World Health Organization (WHO) as “live microorganisms which when administered in adequate amounts confer a health benefit on the host.” Research does suggest that for individuals with specific diseases ― such as irritable bowel disease (IBD), diarrhea and constipation, probiotic foods may help restore your gut health. 

However, for already healthy people, the science hasn’t concluded that consumption of  probiotics (like yogurt) confers any significant health benefits. Likewise, probiotics like yogurt have not been shown to exert any significant benefits on glycemic markers for patients with diabetes or obesity.

Learn more:

Why The Gut Microbiome Is Key To Your Health
What Are Probiotics and Are They Right For You?

What yogurt should diabetics eat?

Shopping for yogurt can be overwhelming. Here are a few things to look out for:

  • Fat content: 2% or lower 
    Higher fat yogurts are creamier, but with more calories. If you’re focused on losing weight, a lower fat yogurt will provide the same benefits with fewer calories.
  • Ingredients: live active cultures
    On the ingredients list, make sure you select a yogurt that says “live active cultures” so you reap the probiotic effects.
  • Flavor: plain or low sugar
    It’s always best to sweeten foods yourself, especially if you’re trying to cut back on sugar. Plain yogurt is the best option, but if you want a flavor, make sure you select a product low in added sugars; under 10 grams per serving is optimal.

What if I’m diabetic and lactose intolerant?

If you’re sensitive to lactose, or consider yourself lactose intolerant, you may still be able to consume yogurt if it has fewer than 4-5 grams of naturally occurring sugar (lactose). This varies from person to person, but a general rule of thumb is to start with a small serving from a product containing 4 grams of lactose — and experiment. 

How do you know how much lactose is in your yogurt? The nutrition facts panel requires companies to outline “total sugars” and “added sugars.” To calculate the amount of lactose in your yogurt: Total sugars – added sugars = lactose sugars. Thicker yogurts, such as Greek yogurt, are lower in lactose because of the straining process we described earlier. Each brand differs in the amount of lactose, so it’s important to take a look at the nutrition facts panel before experimenting.

yogurt for diabetics

Plant-based yogurts

Cashew, almond and coconut milk yogurts are just some of the plant-based dairy alternatives you’ve seen popping up in the stores lately. Plant-based yogurts are made using a similar process to classic yogurts, but they start with a non-dairy milk base and use different yogurt cultures. These differences impact both the texture and flavor. Often, too, these yogurts don’t contain the high protein-to-sugar ratio of dairy yogurt, so don’t provide the same nutritional benefits.

The do’s and don’ts of eating yogurt

Do: 

  • Incorporate yogurt into your regular diet 
  • Look for live and active cultures on the ingredients label
  • Choose a low-fat option (2% or less)
  • Choose yogurts high in protein (more than 12g), low in carbohydrates (less than 15g) and low in sugar (less than 10g)
  • Add your own toppings, mix into smoothies for more protein or eat with fruit for dessert

Don’t:

  • Eat yogurt with toppings included
  • Add a heaping pile of sweets to it
  • Try only one kind of yogurt — there are so many options available!

Key takeaways

Yogurt’s nutritional properties make it an excellent food to incorporate regularly into your meal plan. Yogurt keeps you satiated, is relatively high in protein and naturally low in sugar, so could prove helpful for weight management and the maintenance of healthy blood glucose levels. But don’t look to yogurt as a miracle cure or a magic health bullet. High-fiber prebiotic foods, such as vegetables, nuts, fruits, whole grains and legumes, represent the category of foods most lacking in the American diet, and yet the most beneficial — for overall metabolic health — if consumed daily and at recommended levels, along with lean proteins and healthy fats.

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