The Best Yogurt for People With Diabetes

What to Look for and What to Avoid

Glass of Greek yogurt with berries

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Yogurt can be a healthy source of carbohydrates, protein, fat, and good bacteria. However, yogurt also can be loaded with added sugar or artificial sweeteners, and if you have diabetes, it's important to keep an eye on your intake. But that doesn't mean you have to forgo the creamy treat. Yogurt is a smart snack option—as long as you know which kind to choose and which to skip. 

Analyze the Nutrients

There's a wide spectrum of nutrient density across the yogurt market. In the ideal yogurt, you get a good balance of protein and carbohydrates, along with some fat, calcium, and good-for-you probiotics. You also won't get a lot of added sugar, preservatives, or food coloring.

Calories: The calorie count in yogurt can range from 100 to 230 calories or more, depending on the fat content and sugar level. Add-ins like fruit syrup, honey, or jelly, or toppings such as granola, sprinkles, or rice crisps all contribute to a higher calorie count. Work with a certified diabetes educator or nutritionist to determine your personal calorie goal.

Carbohydrates: The body's primary energy source, carbs can quickly add up and lead to blood sugar imbalance in people with diabetes. The carb count can vary greatly among yogurt types, ranging from 6 grams for Greek yogurt to as high as 42 grams for a soy variety. Greek yogurt is formulated with less whey, meaning much of the lactose (milk sugars) is strained out, resulting in fewer carbs. Whole milk, full-fat varieties tend to have fewer carbs, while nonfat varieties tend to have more, thanks to the added sugars. People with diabetes should look for a lower-carb yogurt, ideally below 10 grams.

Protein: Essential building blocks for all muscle and tissue in the body and a major energy source, protein is made up of amino acids, which are also essential for DNA, hormone and enzyme synthesis, among other vital functions.

Greek yogurt is generally the highest in protein, thanks to the whey being strained out, which leaves behind the higher-protein curd. Some brands of Greek yogurt have up to 17 grams of protein. If your goal, for example, is 15 grams of protein per meal, one Greek yogurt could help you check that box. Other traditional yogurts stay around the seven to nine gram mark.

Fat: Fat is essential for the absorption of vitamin D from dairy, and vitamin D, in turn, is necessary for the absorption of calcium. Without fat, these nutrients won't successfully be ushered into the cells.

While choosing a low-fat yogurt can help you reduce your total calorie intake as well as decrease your saturated fat (the type of fat that is purported to increase LDL cholesterol) intake, low-fat yogurts tend to have more added sugar to make up for the loss of flavor. Additionally, as dairy is a source of carbohydrates, fat helps slow any blood sugar rush that comes with the lactose naturally found in yogurt.

Calcium: Helpful for muscle function, bone support, and electrolyte balance, calcium is one of the major minerals found in yogurt. One cup of yogurt can provide anywhere from 15 to 30 percent of your recommended daily intake of calcium.

Vitamin D: Necessary for healthy bones and immune function, small amounts of vitamin D may be found in yogurt (around 80 to 100 IUs) if the makers use fortified milk, but it is more likely that yogurt products with higher vitamin D levels are fortified with the synthetic vitamin during processing.

Probiotics: New research is emerging about the benefits of probiotic yogurt in people with diabetes. In fact, a 2017 study published in Evidence-Based Care Journal reported that people with type 2 diabetes who consumed three 100-gram portions of probiotic yogurt per day had lower blood glucose, cholesterol, and diastolic blood pressure than a matched set of individuals who didn't consume yogurt.

Most commercial yogurt brands pasteurize their products and add in live bacteria cultures after pasteurization, but these cultures are still highly beneficial to gut health. Look for S. Thermophilus, L. Bulgaricus, L. Acidophilus, Bifidus, L. Casei, and L. Rhamnosus and other strains on the label.

Analyze the Ingredients

The gold standard of yogurt is plain, organic, made from milk of grass-fed cows, and full-fat—not the low-fat or nonfat varieties, with a simple (short) ingredient list. Plain yogurt, for example, should ideally only contain milk and/or cream, plus some bacterial cultures. Look for yogurt made with milk from cows not treated with recombinant bovine somatotropin hormones (rBST), a synthetic hormone that increases milk production in cows and may have trickle-down effects on human hormones.

Ingredients to Avoid

The biggest culprit to watch out for when reading yogurt labels are added sugars, which can take many forms. High fructose corn syrup, dextrose, cane sugar, and evaporated cane juice are just a few. While some sugar isn't harmful, there's no nutritional benefit to sugar, and if you have diabetes, your practitioner may ask you to limit the amount of sugar you eat so as not to spike your glucose.

Artificial sweeteners, preservatives, food coloring, or dyes also fall into the category of compounds without any nutritional benefit, and should generally be avoided.

As a hard-and-fast rule, your healthiest option is to choose plain yogurt. If you like a little sweetness, top your yogurt with some fresh or frozen berries, which will also give you extra fiber. A drizzle of honey or maple syrup can also go a long way in sweetening your yogurt—and the benefit of buying plain and adding your own is that you can be in control of the amount. Natural sweeteners such as honey and maple syrup also have additional minerals and nutrients, too.

Available Yogurt Varieties

In the past few years, yogurt offerings have expanded to include not only cow milk bases, but also sheep and goat milk, plus a plethora of plant-based options, as well as alternative preparations like Greek and Icelandic.

Animal sources: Most yogurts on the shelves today are made from cow milk, but goat and sheep milk offerings are starting to pop up, as well. These alternative milks tend to be lower in lactose and therefore better-suited for people who are lactose-sensitive. Some research shows that goat and sheep milk are less inflammatory than cow milk, thanks to their different fatty acid profile. Goat milk is also higher in calcium than cow milk.

Plant sources: Soy, almonds, cashews, macadamias, and coconuts are all being utilized to make vegan yogurt bases, with great results. However, many of these formulations still have lots of added sugar or other flavors to make them taste sweeter (no lactose means they don't have the same natural sweetness as cow milk yogurt), so be sure to check the labels and look for plain varieties.

Greek and Icelandic yogurt: These traditional preparations of yogurt use curdled milk that's been strained, removing some of the whey and leaving behind a thicker, more protein-rich yogurt. Greek and Icelandic yogurt (also known as skyr) have lower levels of lactose (around 5% lactose) than other yogurts, making them easier to digest, especially for people with lactose intolerance.

The straining preparation also reduces the carbs—often up to one-third of conventional yogurts. Greek yogurt and skyr are readily available in regular grocery stores; find them in the refrigerated dairy section.

For people with diabetes, plain Greek or Icelandic yogurt is an exceptional meal and snack option due to the low carbohydrate and high protein content. Avoid those varieties that have added syrups, fruit preserves, sweeteners, or come with toppings on the side.

On the other hand, some varieties of Greek yogurt and skyr (mostly flavored ones) have less calcium than traditional yogurt, so keep that in mind if you're eating yogurt for calcium. 

In addition to its benefits in people with diabetes, yogurt (whether Greek or regular) can reduce your risk of type 2 diabetes by 14 percent if consumed daily, according to a 2017 review of studies published in the Journal of Nutrition.

Recommended Brands

It's important to consult with a diabetes educator or nutritionist when choosing specific brands

Skyr

Greek

Goat/Sheep

Grass-Fed

Plant-Based

Ways to Enjoy Yogurt

Yogurt for breakfast is a no-brainer. For an extra special treat, top 6 to 8 ounces of plain Greek yogurt with one serving of fresh or frozen berries and 1 tablespoon of chopped nuts for crunch, protein, and healthy fats.

Beyond breakfast, there are other great ways to enjoy yogurt:

  • Dips: Plain Greek yogurt can also be used almost exclusively in place of sour cream in dips, dressings, and other recipes. You can also sub out some of the mayo in coleslaw recipes for a lighter, tangier version.
  • Baking: Substitute Greek yogurt for sour cream when making baked goods, such as cookies, scones, or cake.
  • Smoothies: Add some yogurt to your smoothies for added thickness, creaminess, and protein. 
  • Condiment: Swap out honey and maple syrup and top your whole grain pancakes or waffles with a dollop of Greek yogurt. 
  • Dessert: Instead of eating ice cream for dessert, try a frozen container of Greek yogurt. Top it with some fresh or frozen berries for a sweet after-dinner treat. 

A Word From Verywell

Having diabetes doesn't mean you can't enjoy yogurt as part of a healthy diet, but it does mean that you should learn what to look for so as not to sabotage your blood sugar control. Look for Greek varieties and/or choose plain, low-fat/full-fat versions for higher protein, lower carbs, healthy fats, and good vitamin absorption.

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