Oatmeal is often hailed as a great breakfast option and you might have been told that oatmeal is especially good for people living with diabetes.
But is that really true? Is oatmeal a good choice when it comes to diabetes management or will it wreak havoc on your blood sugars?
In this article, we’ll have a look at why oatmeal is often recommended for people living with diabetes, how it generally impacts blood sugars (including the science behind it) and what type of oats, if any, you should add to your daily routine.
What are the health benefits of oats?
Oatmeal is made of oat, rolled or steel-cut, cooked in a warm liquid such as water or milk. A hot bowl of oatmeal can be like a warm hug, and most people love it for its flavor, nutritional value, and health benefits.
It can also be a great option for those trying to lose weight as it can help control hunger levels due to its high water and soluble fiber content.
The fiber content is also the key to why oats are often hailed as a great option for people living with diabetes because fiber in the intestines can slow the absorption of sugar and therefore prevent sharp rises in blood sugar and insulin levels after eating a meal.
What does the science say about oats and diabetes?
The science is all in favor of people living with type 2 diabetes or pre-diabetes eating oatmeal. However, there is very little research available when it comes to type 1 diabetes and oatmeal.
A large study including 75,000 adults for 14 years found that eating soluble fiber, such as oats, may help lower blood sugars and potentially reducing the risk of developing diabetes.
A comprehensive review of studies focused on how oats can benefit people living with diabetes found that oatmeal significantly reduced the spike in blood sugars after meals, and even reduced the amount of insulin needed.
And according to the National Library of Medicine, eating oats for 4-8 weeks can possibly improve fasting blood sugars and insulin levels in people living with type 2 diabetes.
Is Oatmeal a Carbohydrate?
One of the main reasons why it can be a little hard to wrap your head around whether oatmeal is good for people living with diabetes is that it’s a carbohydrate and many people living with diabetes manage their carbohydrate intake tightly to keep blood sugars in a healthy range.
Carbs are the nutrient in food that converts to glucose the fastest and can therefore have a dramatic impact on blood sugars.
Often when we think of carbs, we think of bread, candy, and soda but in reality, most foods contain carbs and will impact blood sugars to some degree.
And the same thing applies to oats. While oats contain very limited natural sugars, it is a carbohydrate and it will impact blood sugars to some degree.
Which oatmeal is best for people living with diabetes
Oatmeal can be made of different types of oats, and when it comes to blood sugar management, they are not all created equal.
Generally, the type of oats you want to choose for your oatmeal should be the least processed and have a relatively low glycemic index (GI).
The glycemic index of a food tells you how quickly it’s converted into glucose in the bloodstream. If you live with diabetes and are looking for fewer blood sugar spikes, you will ideally want to choose foods with a lower GI.
This is the least processed type of oats, which means that it retains all the fibers and nutrients that make oatmeal so healthy.
It’s oat groats that have been cut in half and they are higher in fiber than any of the other types of oats, which makes them ideal from a blood sugar perspective.
It can be a little more time-consuming to cook with steel-cut oats and they do give your oatmeal a slightly different texture and flavor than other types of oats.
Generally, the cooking time for steel-cut based oatmeal is 20-30 minutes and the result is a chewy porridge.
1 serving ( 1/4 cup) of steel-cut oats contain:
- Calories: 150
- Protein: 5 grams
- Fat: 2.5 grams
- Carbohydrates: 27 grams
- Fiber: 4 grams
Rolled oats (old fashioned oats)
These oat groats have been steamed and flattened which makes them easy to cook but also reduces the fiber and vitamin content slightly. They are still good from a blood sugar perspective, but some people will see more of a blood sugar increase.
Since they have been processed, it only takes 2-5 minutes to cook oatmeal with rolled oats. You can also use rolled oats in a variety of other dishes as a replacement for flour.
1 serving (1/2 cup) of rolled oats contain:
- Calories: 150
- Protein: 5 grams
- Fat: 2.5 grams
- Carbohydrates: 25 grams
- Fiber: 4 grams
Instant oats or quick oats
These oats are rolled oats that have gone through further processing. They have the same nutritional value as rolled oats but a higher glycemic index.
From a blood sugar perspective, this means that quick oats will hit your blood sugar the hardest of the three oat types.
It’s also important to be aware that packets of instant oats often include other ingredients, such as sugar and fruit, so it’s important to read the nutrition label.
How oatmeal impacts your blood sugar
Whether or not oatmeal will spike your blood sugar depends on which type of oat you choose and how your body reacts to oatmeal.
We’re all different and how we react to eating certain types of food can differ from person to person. This is why it’s important that you use a glucose meter or CGM to measure your blood after eating to learn how you react to different types of food.
You can read “When Should You Check Your Blood Sugar” to learn more about when and how often to check.
Registered Dietitian, Nutritionist, Certified Diabetes Care & Education Specialist Ariel Warren suggests that you aim for your blood sugars to be below 140 mg/dL (7.8 mmol/L) 1-2 hours after finishing a meal.
If you need a slightly looser regimen, aim for less than 180 mg/dL (10 mmol/L) 1-2 hours after eating.
If you see that your blood sugar is higher than 140-180 mg/dL (7.8-10 mmol/L) 1-2 hours after finishing your oatmeal, oatmeal might not be a good option for you, or you might want to experiment with smaller portion sizes or a different amount of insulin if that’s how you manage your diabetes.
Certain conditions, such as Gastroparesis, can also make it a bit more challenging to enjoy high fiber foods such as oatmeal.
Although oatmeal generally is considered a good type of food for people living with diabetes, you have to consider your overall health.
How to manage blood sugars if you eat oatmeal
Regardless of what type of diabetes you live with or how you manage your blood sugars, you need to establish how oatmeal impacts your blood sugars and then adapt from there to optimize your blood sugar management.
If you don’t manage your diabetes with insulin but rely on diet and exercise, Metformin, or other diabetes medications, you have limited tools to lower your blood sugars after you eat.
If you observe that your blood sugar is higher than 140-180 mg/dL (7.8-10 mmol/L) 1-2 hours after enjoying your oatmeal, you can try enjoying smaller portions or go for a walk after your meal. Even a short walk can be an excellent way of reducing blood sugars.
If you find that your blood sugars spike and stay high after enjoying oatmeal regardless of what you do, you might want to reconsider if oatmeal should be your everyday breakfast choice.
If you manage your diabetes with insulin, you should first focus on calculating the right dose of insulin for the meal. You’ll also need to think about the timing of your insulin and how quickly what you eat gets converted into glucose in the bloodstream.
When it comes to calculating your insulin dose, carb counting is the golden standard for successful blood sugar management.
Learning how to carb count might be slightly intimidating at first, but if you need a bit of support your endocrinologist should be able to refer you to a Certified Diabetes Care & Education Specialist.
Should you eat oatmeal if you live with diabetes…
Just as there is no such thing as a single best “diabetic diet” there is not ONE food that works for everyone, and that also applies to oatmeal.
But ultimately we’re all different and how your blood sugars react to eating oatmeal might be different from how my blood sugars react, so it’s important that you learn what works for you.
That means measuring your blood sugars before and after you enjoy your oatmeal to gain an understanding of how it affects your blood sugar.
Once you’ve done that a few times, you can make an informed decision on whether oatmeal is the right choice for your daily breakfast or just something to be enjoyed occasionally.