Diabetes: Start Your Day with the Best Cereals

The Best Cereals for People with Diabetes

bowl of oatmeal and glass of milk

The day’s starting line

No matter what type of diabetes you have, keeping your blood glucose levels within a healthy range is crucial. And starting the day with a healthy breakfast is one step you can take to achieve that.  

Breakfast should be a balanced meal with adequate protein, carbohydrates, and healthy fats. It should also be low in added sugar and high in fiber and nutrients.

What is the glycemic index?
The glycemic index (GI) measures how carbohydrates may raise your blood sugar. Foods with a high GI could lead to a spike.

If you have diabetes, you may already be familiar with the glycemic index (GI). The GI is a way to measure how quickly foods with carbohydrates raise blood glucose levels.

Carbohydrates give you the energy you need to start your day. But digesting carbohydrates too quickly can cause your blood sugar levels to spike.

Foods with a low GI are easier on your body than those with a high GI. They are digested more slowly and minimize spikes after meals. This is something to keep in mind when choosing breakfast cereals.

It is important to know what things affect the GI. Processing, cooking methods, and the type of grain can all impact how quickly the food is digested. Cereals that are more processed tend to have a higher GI even if they have fiber added to them. 

Mixing foods can also affect the GI. Having protein and health fats with your cereal can help prevent spikes in blood sugar.

A healthy cereal begins with whole grains

A healthy breakfast that’s easy to prepare can be as simple as a bowl of cereal, provided you choose wisely.

The grocery store cereal aisle is stacked high with cereals that satisfy your sweet tooth but sabotage your glucose levels. Many of the most popular cereals have refined grains and sugars at the top of the ingredient lists. Those cereals have few nutrients and lots of empty calories. They can also cause a spike in your blood glucose levels.

That’s why it’s important to read labels carefully. Look for cereals that list a whole grain as the first ingredient. Refined grains are stripped of bran and germ during processing, which makes them less healthy.

Whole grains include the entire grain kernel, which is a source of healthy fiber. Fiber is an important element of your diet. It helps control your blood sugar levels and lowers your risk of heart disease. Whole grains also contain lots of vitamins and minerals.

Typically you can find the following whole grains in breakfast cereals:

  • oatmeal
  • whole wheat flour
  • wheat bran
  • whole cornmeal
  • barley
  • brown rice
  • wild rice
  • buckwheat

According to the American Diabetes Association, rolled oatmeal, steel-cut oatmeal, and oat bran are all low GI foods, with a GI value of 55 or less. Quick oats have a medium GI, with a value of 56-69. Corn flakes, puffed rice, bran flakes, and instant oatmeal are considered high GI foods, with a value of 70 or more.

Instead of using instant hot cereal packets, consider making a batch of whole or steel-cut oats for the week and keeping it in the refrigerator. Heat up a portion for a few minutes in the microwave each morning and you’ll have a healthy cereal that will be more slowly digested. 

While you’re reading those cereal box labels…

Keep an eye out for hidden ingredients. According to the American Diabetes Association, you should choose cereals that contain at least 3 grams of fiber and less than 6 grams of sugar per serving.

The trouble is that sugar has a lot of aliases and may show up on ingredient lists multiple times. Remember, too, that ingredients are listed in descending order of how much the food contains. If there are three types of sugar listed in the top few ingredients, it would not be the best choice.

The Harvard School of Public Health provides this list of sweeteners that may appear on food labels:

  • agave nectar
  • brown sugar
  • cane crystals
  • cane sugar
  • corn sweetener
  • corn syrup
  • crystalline fructose
  • dextrose
  • evaporated cane juice
  • fructose
  • fruit juice concentrates
  • glucose
  • honey
  • high-fructose corn syrup
  • invert sugar
  • malt syrup
  • maltose
  • maple syrup
  • molasses
  • raw sugar
  • sucrose
  • syrup

Don’t forget to keep an eye on the sodium level in your cereal, too. According to the Mayo Clinic, you should consume less than 2,300 mg of sodium per day.

Punch it up with protein and nuts

Once you’ve chosen a whole grain cereal, you can add nuts as a source of protein. They will also provide extra texture and taste.

Adding protein can help you manage your blood sugar at breakfast and may also help you manage your levels after lunch. You can also eat unsweetened Greek yogurt, eggs, or other foods that contain healthy protein to round out your breakfast.

Unsalted nuts, such as walnuts, almonds, and pecans, can add crunch to your cereal. They contain heart-healthy monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. But they’re also fairly high in calories, so eat them in moderation.

Depending on your meal plan, adding fruit to your cereal can add sweetness. Just remember to account for this in your carb count if you count carbs, or to manage the portion.  Whole fruits are a great addition to a meal, and those with more skin, such as berries, will add even more fiber to your meal.

Top it off with dairy or a dairy substitute

Consider adding half a cup of milk or dairy substitute to your bowl of cereal if it fits into your meal plan. Keep in mind that milk contains some natural sugars. Skim milk, 1 percent, or 2 percent milk can take the place of whole milk if you want to consume fewer calories and less saturated fat.

You can also use soy milk or almond milk if you have a lactose intolerance or don’t like dairy milk. Unsweetened soy milk is similar to cow’s milk in carbohydrate content. Unsweetened almond milk contains fewer carbohydrates and calories than dairy or soy milk.

Preventing type 2 diabetes

Even if you don’t have diabetes, eating low GI foods is a healthy choice. According to the Harvard School of Public Health, a diet high in refined carbohydrates may increase your risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

On the other hand, a diet rich in whole grains may lower your risk of developing type 2 diabetes. That’s because whole grains cause your blood sugar to rise more slowly, which puts less stress on your body’s ability to produce insulin.

If you choose wisely, hot or cold breakfast cereals can provide a quick and nutritious breakfast option. When you’re making your cereal selection, choose products that are high in fiber and whole grains, but low in sugar, sodium, and calories.

Top off your cereal with a small quantity fruit, nuts, or other nutrient-rich toppings along with some milk or milk substitute to round out your meal.

The takeaway

thumbs up Do this
  • Choose cereals with whole grains, such as rolled oatmeal, steel-cut oatmeal, and rolled bran.
  • Add protein with nuts for taste and texture.
thumbs down Avoid this
  • Stay away from cereals high on the glycemic index, such as corn flakes, puffed rice, bran flakes, and instant oatmeal.
  • Don’t choose cereals that list refined grains and sugars as top ingredients.

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