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The Best and Worst Drinks for People With Diabetes

Liquid calories and nutrition can be good or bad for blood sugar and diabetes. Here's how you can get the healthiest bang from your beverages.

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Drinks for people with type 2 diabetes

Choosing the right diabetic drinks is as important as choosing the right foods, and it isn’t always simple. Is coffee helpful or harmful to insulin resistance? Does zero-calorie diet soda affect your blood sugar? Some recent studies may only add to the confusion. We reviewed the research and then asked three top registered dietitians, who are also certified diabetes educators, what they tell their clients about seven everyday drinks for people with diabetes. Here’s what to know before you sip.

Glasses of water with lemon slices in them.iStock

Drink more: Water

Could downing a few glasses of H2O help control your blood sugar? A study in the journal Diabetes Care suggests so: The researchers found that people who drank 16 ounces (two cups’ worth) or less of water a day were about 30 percent more likely to have high blood sugar than those who drank more than that daily. The connection seems to be a hormone called vasopressin, which helps the body regulate hydration. Vasopressin levels increase when a person is dehydrated, which prompts the liver to produce more blood sugar.

How much: Experts recommend six to nine 8-ounce glasses of water per day for women and slightly more for men. You’ll get some of this precious fluid from fruit and vegetables and other fluids, but not all of it. “If you’re not in the water habit, have a glass before each meal,” recommends Constance Brown-Riggs, RD, a certified diabetes educator in Massapequa, NY, past spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and author of The African American Guide to Living Well with Diabetes. “After a few weeks, add a glass at meals too.” If you’re already meeting your water targets, there’s no need to push it further.

Glass of milk in front of a blue background.iStock

Drink more: Milk

Moo juice isn’t just a kids’ drink—it’s one of the best drinks for people with diabetes, too. It provides the calcium, magnesium, potassium, and vitamin D your body needs for many essential functions. “Low-fat or fat-free milk is a great beverage for people with diabetes,” Brown-Riggs says. Drinking more milk can also help prevent strokes (a concern for many people with diabetes) by 7%, according to research from the Journal of the American Heart Association. Bonus: The researchers also found that eating cheese produced the same effect. If you’re lactose intolerant or allergic to dairy, eating plenty of dark green vegetables can help you obtain the calcium and other electrolytes you need.

How much: Experts recommend eating two to three daily servings of dairy products, including low-fat or fat-free milk. Milk does contain carbohydrates so remember to factor in 12 grams of carbohydrate for every 8-ounce glass. “Drink milk with a meal so your body can handle the natural rise in blood sugar that happens when we eat carbohydrates,” says Angela Ginn, RD, a certified diabetes educator and nutrition education coordinator at the University of Maryland’s Center for Diabetes and Endocrinology in Baltimore, MD. Discover the everyday habits that could be ruining your diabetes control.

Woman holding a mug of tea on a saucer.iStock

Drink more: Tea

No calories, big flavor, and a boatload of antioxidants have made tea—particularly green and black—trendy for health reasons, especially when it comes to drinks for people with diabetes. Sipping more than three cups of tea a day could lower the risk for developing diabetes, other researchers found. Tea may also help reduce your risk of stroke and heart disease. The exception to these diabetic drinks: sweetened, bottled iced teas, which have tons of added sugar.

How much: Three to four cups of tea are OK for most people; just be sure the caffeine doesn’t keep you awake at night. More is fine if you opt for decaf. And watch what you add: Avoid sugar and full-fat milk and cream. Discover what happens to your body when you drink tea every day.

Person holding a plastic cup of iced coffee.iStock

Drink carefully: Coffee

Some studies suggest that coffee drinkers are at lower risk for developing type 2 diabetes. (A compound in coffee called chlorogenic acid seems to slow absorption of glucose into the bloodstream.) But other research indicates that for people who already have diabetes, coffee may raise blood sugar or make the body work harder to process it. Bottom line: It comes down to how coffee affects your individual blood sugar. What many people with diabetes add to their coffee may be the real issue. “Sugar, sweetened creamers, and high-fat milk and half-and-half can raise your blood sugar and your weight,” Brown-Riggs says.

How much: Experts say sipping two to three cups a day is probably fine, but if you’re having a tough time controlling your blood sugar, it may be worth cutting out coffee to see if it makes a difference. “Everyone’s blood sugar response to foods is unique and individual,” Ginn says. If your java fix is worrying you, look for the 7 signs that you’re drinking too much coffee.

Glass of brown soda with ice.iStock

Drink carefully: Diet soda

Are fizzy, zero-calorie drinks a brilliant choice for people concerned about diabetes, or could they do more harm than good? One study looked at over 2,000 people and found that those who drank diet soda every day increased their chances of developing diabetes, leading researchers to conclude that diet soda itself could be a risk factor. The news may be even worse for diabetics drinking zero-calorie sodas. Researchers in Australia looked at 600 patients with diabetes and concluded that drinking more than four cans of diet soda a week doubled their chances of developing proliferative diabetic retinopathy, an eye disease that’s a complication of diabetes.

What if you’re using it as an interim measure to wean yourself off real soda? Though there’s concern among researchers, the American Diabetes Association still suggests that diet soda is a better alternative to a sugar-packed version for people watching their blood sugar.

How much: If you have a soda habit, it’s probably OK to sip one zero-calorie drink a day instead of a sugary version, but given the research it’s best to wean yourself off. Make sure to also drink healthy beverages like water and tea. Resist the temptation to see diet soda as a “magic eraser” allowing you to indulge in foods like chips, dips, sweets, fries, and burgers. People who enjoyed their diet pop as part of a healthy diet had lower risk of high blood sugar and high cholesterol than those who ate fried and sugary foods in one University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill study. Learn about these other 23 surprising habits can actually lead to diabetes.

Mason jar filled with fruit juice and a straw.iStock

Drink less: Soda and sugary fruit drinks

With 10 teaspoons of sugar in every 12-ounce can or bottle, sweet drinks can send your blood sugar soaring—and boost your risk for weight gain, high blood pressure, stroke, and heart disease. One sugary drink a day can add 150 empty calories and about 40 to 50 grams of blood-sugar-raising carbohydrates to your diet, all of which can cause you to pack on belly fat and increase inflammation and insulin resistance—boosting the risk for diabetes and heart disease. Bottom line: Soda and sugary fruit drinks are some of the worst drinks for people with diabetes.

“If you have diabetes, cutting out soda and other sugar-sweetened drinks is one of the most powerful ways to control blood sugar, lose weight, and improve your health,” says Ginn. “Switching to healthier drinks can save hundreds of calories and a lot of carbohydrates. It’s often one of my first goals when I work with someone newly diagnosed with diabetes.”

How much: None, ideally. Think of soda as you would a decadent dessert that you might indulge a taste of once in a blue moon. If you have a soda habit, cut back by drinking a smaller size for a week or two, or mixing half regular soda with half diet soda or club soda to reduce your calorie and carb intake. Aim to go sugar-free: Water and club soda (including zero calorie fruit-flavored types) are ideal, and diet soda is an option for diabetic drinks but don’t exceed one a day.

Glass of orange fruit juice.iStock

Drink less: Fruit juice

Your mom served up OJ every day with breakfast, and you grew to love it. The labels display tempting photos of colorful fruit. But are juices healthy diabetic drinks for blood sugar and weight control? A regular juice habit is associated with an increased risk of type 2 diabetes, according to a study published in Diabetes Care. In terms of nutrition, a piece of real fruit is a better deal. A 4-ounce serving of 100 percent orange juice has 56 calories, 12 grams carbohydrates, and no fiber; compare that to a small fresh orange, which has 45 calories, 11 grams carbohydrates, and 2 grams of blood-sugar-controlling fiber. That said, people with diabetes can indulge in a little 100 percent fruit juice once in a while, says Dawn Menning, RD, a certified diabetes educator in Los Angeles, CA. “They should just know the amount of juice they are consuming and factor the amount of carbohydrates into their eating plan,” she says.

How much: Juice lovers, eat fruit or switch to a low-sodium veggie juice, which is much lower in calories and carbohydrates than fruit juice. If you’re really craving juice, try a 4-ounce serving with a meal. Test your blood sugar afterward, and then repeat with the same meal for the next three or four days. If your blood sugar doesn’t rise more than 35 to 50 points, a little juice could be fine. Next, read on for more lifesaving things people with diabetes can do.

  • Constance Brown-Riggs, RD, certified diabetes educator, former spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Massapequa, NY.
  • Angela Ginn, RD, LDN, certified diabetes educator, nutrition education coordinator, University of Maryland’s Center for Diabetes and Endocrinology, Baltimore, MD.
  • Dawn Sherr, RD, certified diabetes educator, former practice manager with the American Association of Diabetes Educators, Los Angeles, CA.
  • Diabetes Care: “Low Water Intake and Risk for New-Onset Hyperglycemia.”
  • BMJ Open: “Tea Consumption and Risk of Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus: a Systematic Review and Meta-analysis Update.”
  • Diabetes Care: “Does Coffee Consumption Reduce the Risk of Type 2 Diabetes in Individuals With Impaired Glucose?”
  • American Diabetes Association: “What Can I Drink?”
  • Current Developments in Nutrition: “Diet Soda and Sugar-Sweetened Soda Consumption in Relation to Incident Diabetes in the Northern Manhattan Study.”
  • Clinical and Experimental Opthamology: “Diet Soft Drink Is Associated With Increased Odds of Proliferative Diabetic Retinopathy.”
  • The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition: “Dietary Patterns Matter: Diet Beverages and Cardiometabolic Risks in the Longitudinal Coronary Artery Risk Development in Young Adults (CARDIA) Study.”
  • Diabetes Care: “Dietary Sugar and Body Weight: Have We Reached a Crisis in the Epidemic of Obesity and Diabetes?”
Medically reviewed by Susan E. Spratt, MD, on August 18, 2019
Originally Published in Reader's Digest