Oatmeal and Diabetes: The Do’s and Don’ts

Written by Jeri Burtchell | Published on August 22, 2014
Medically Reviewed by Peggy Pletcher, MS, RD, LD, CDE on August 22, 2014

woman eating oatmeal

Healthy Eating

If you’re living with diabetes, developing healthy eating habits can be challenging. Knowing which foods to select and how to prepare them is critical to controlling blood sugar.

In the past, people with diabetes were told to avoid all carbohydrates. Now it’s accepted that a managed amount of carbohydrates is fine for people living with the disease. A system called the glycemic index assists in the understanding of which foods have stronger or weaker effects on blood sugar.

In general, oatmeal is considered low glycemic index food, which means it is less likely to lead to swinging blood sugar levels. Yet, not all forms of oatmeal are the same. Find out which types of oatmeal help the most and how you can keep this popular food from becoming an unhealthy meal.

Why Eat Oatmeal?

Traditionally eaten as a breakfast food, oatmeal can set the stage for controlling blood sugar for the rest of the day. It’s also helpful for another reason. Diabetes is known to raise bad cholesterol and lower good cholesterol, which can lead to heart disease and stroke. So it’s important to maintain a healthy balance between HDL (good cholesterol) and LDL (bad cholesterol). According to the American Heart Association (AHA), oatmeal is a “heart healthy” food that lowers the levels of LDL.

It’s important for people with diabetes to educate themselves about carbohydrates and how they impact blood sugar, or blood glucose. The glycemic index (GI) is a measure of how foods containing carbohydrates raise blood sugar. Foods are ranked according to how they compare to glucose or white bread. The higher a food’s GI, the more it will raise blood sugar.

Oatmeal is more nutritious than many of the other starchy breakfast food choices, such as croissants, donuts, biscuits, or toast. Not only does oatmeal improve cholesterol levels, it has an average GI of only 55, which makes it a low GI food and an ideal choice for the sugar-sensible eater.

The Do's and Don'ts

Oatmeal is a powerhouse food when it comes to managing diabetes, but there are a few important facts you should know about it.

Oats come in a wide variety of forms, including Irish, steel cut, rolled, and instant. Depending on which one you select, the GI could vary from 42 to 66.

If you’re using GI to select foods, choose those that are closer to their natural state. The less a food is processed, the lower the GI. For example, whole rolled oats have a lower GI than prepackaged instant oatmeal.

The following pointers will help you get the most benefit out of this nutritious breakfast food.

Do

  • Select either Irish or steel cut oats. These contain a higher amount of soluble fiber, which helps regulate your blood sugar and has a lower GI.
  • Flavor your oatmeal with cinnamon, a spice thought to naturally aid in lowering blood sugar.
  • Add a handful of walnuts for variety. Nuts have a healthy type of fat that is ideal for people with diabetes.
  • If you feel the need for extra flavor, add a little unsweetened applesauce.
  • Talk to your nutritionist for more suggestions about adding oats to your diet.

Don’t

  • Don’t opt for instant or pre-packaged oatmeal. These can be laden with sugar and salt.
  • Don’t add too much dried fruit, such as raisins and cranberries. Just two tablespoons contain about 15 grams of carbohydrates, which is as much as a half a cup of oatmeal.
  • Don’t add brown sugar, syrup, or honey. Even just a little of these sugars can add a lot of carbohydrates to your otherwise healthy oatmeal.

Steel Cut or Rolled Oats

The closer a food is to its natural state, the less “processed” it is. Foods that are processed can be stripped of both fiber and nutrients.

Steel cut or “Irish cut” oats are the least refined and closest to their natural form.

Rolled oats have been “rolled” or flattened. Both rolled and steel cut types are better than the individually packaged, artificially flavored, instant variety.

When it comes to preparing oats, whether steel cut or rolled, adding them to cold water and then simmering will produce the creamiest results. For a single serving of either type, use a half cup of oats to a full cup of water. Start your pot simmering at the top of your morning routine and no extra time is needed. Old-fashioned rolled oats will take about 15 minutes to cook, while the steel cut oats take twice as long.

Starting Your Day Off Right

For some people, morning is the most stressful, hectic time of day. Trying to cook anything seems like a daunting task. Consider this: breakfast is the most important meal of the day and sets the stage for your daylong job of maintaining your blood sugar.

Whichever type you choose to eat, and whenever you choose to eat it, oatmeal is a sound choice. You will be taking a proactive step toward controlling your blood sugar and gaining additional heart-healthy benefits as well.

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