This content originally appeared on Everyday Health. Republished with permission.
By Kristeen Cherney, PhD
Medically Reviewed by Lynn Grieger, RDN, CDCES
Oatmeal, that hearty, humble breakfast staple, can be a great addition to a diabetes diet. A widely available whole grain, oats are rich in fiber along with essential minerals, such as magnesium, potassium, calcium, phosphorus, zinc, and iron, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Not only are oats nutritious and satiating, they can also offer specific benefits for people with type 2 diabetes.
According to MedlinePlus, adults with type 2 diabetes may benefit from eating whole grains like oats, due to their potential glucose and cholesterol-lowering effects. Plus, the soluble fiber in oats may help you hit your blood sugar goals and keep your weight in check.
How Eating Oatmeal May Help You Manage Your Blood Sugar, Cholesterol, and Weight
Balancing your carbohydrate intake is key to a healthy diabetes diet, per the American Diabetes Association (ADA). Although oatmeal is high in carbohydrates, the less processed it is, the lower it is on the glycemic index (GI), per the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Meaning: It’s more slowly digested and metabolized, resulting in a lower rise in blood sugar. (Steel-cut oats and groats are less processed than instant oatmeal; more on that later.)
High Fiber Content May Help You Manage Blood Sugar and Weight
“One cup of oatmeal has about 30 grams (g) carbs in it with 4 g fiber,” says Leah Kaufman, RDN, CDCES, who’s based in New York City. Fiber is important for all adults, but especially for people with diabetes. Not only does fiber help with regularity, but beta-glucan (ß-glucan), a specific type of soluble fiber found in oats, increases the time it takes to digest, helping slow down the release of glucose in the small intestine. A meta-analysis published in September 2022 in BMJ Open Diabetes Research and Care concluded that ß-glucan can help improve blood glucose levels (both immediately after meals, and during fasting) in middle-aged adults with type 2 diabetes.
So just how much fiber do you need daily? The USDA’s 2020–2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (PDF) recommend that adult men aim for 28 to 34 g of fiber per day, depending on their age, while women should consume 22 to 28 g. But, the USDA notes, over 90 percent of women and 97 percent of men don’t meet these goals. And some data suggests even higher amounts are optimal for people with type 2 diabetes. For instance, previous research notes that 40 g per day may be even more beneficial for preventing and managing diabetes. Consider aiming for at least 10 g of fiber per meal, from foods like oatmeal, whole grains, fruit, vegetables, and legumes. (If your fiber intake is currently low, make sure you drink plenty of water to avoid constipation and let your digestive system get used to a higher fiber intake, advises the Cleveland Clinic.)
Another potential benefit of high-fiber foods like oats is their ability to help keep you feeling full for longer, making it less likely that you’ll overeat. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), this effect can help promote weight loss. High-fiber foods also tend to be lower in calories, helping to create a daily calorie deficit that may help you lose or maintain your weight.
Potential Reduction in Inflammation
Another reason to fuel up with oats: their anti-inflammatory properties. Inflammation is one of the body’s natural defense mechanisms. When you’re injured or become ill, for instance, your body releases inflammatory cells to help you heal. However, too much inflammation can occur as a result of disease (such as type 2 diabetes) or from long-term stress, poor diet, and sedentary lifestyle. Ongoing, or chronic, inflammation places undue stress on your organs, contributing to complications such as diseases of the heart and brain, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
Oats contain an anti-inflammatory compound called avenanthramide, which may reduce the inflammation in diabetes that could lead to disease progression. In one past randomized controlled trial, researchers looked at the effects of an oat-enriched diet in type 2 diabetes patients. Researchers found that the diet resulted in decreased microparticles found in blood platelets that could contribute to high blood sugar and inflammation. These results applied to people with type 2 diabetes who already ate a fairly balanced diet, worked out regularly, and had adopted other healthy lifestyle habits. Whole grains (like oats) are also associated with a lower risk of inflammation and, in turn, chronic disease risk, per a review published in January 2022 in Nutrients.
However, a more recent meta-analysis, published in Frontiers in Nutrition in August 2021, noted that there’s a lack of evidence to confirm oats’ anti-inflammatory potential, and that more research is needed on the topic — so take these findings with a grain of salt.
Lower Risk for Heart Disease and High Cholesterol
Heart disease is a known complication of type 2 diabetes because high blood glucose levels can damage nerves and blood vessels connected to your heart, according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK). While eating oatmeal alone won’t prevent your risk of heart disease, fiber-rich, anti-inflammatory foods like oats, along with following other healthy habits, can contribute to lowering the chances of heart problems over the long term.
There’s also evidence that oats can decrease high cholesterol levels, another risk factor for heart disease. A previous review and meta-analysis examined trials in which people with type 2 diabetes ate oatmeal for breakfast versus control groups that ate non-oat-containing foods, such as white bread. Researchers noted that fiber from the oats not only helped regulate glucose levels, but study participants also saw reduced levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL, or “bad”) cholesterol. The authors added that people with type 2 diabetes who ate oats had lower total cholesterol levels.
Which Oats Are the Best for People With Type 2 Diabetes?
When it comes to your type 2 diabetes diet, not all oats are created equal. All oatmeal originates from oat groats, which are the whole kernels harvested before being stripped of their hulls. Oat groats are processed further into different types of oats that can be used for oatmeal, according to Harvard Health Publishing. The more processed the oats, the less beneficial fiber they contain.
Oatmeal can come in the form of:
Slow-Cooked (Rolled) Oats Oat groats have been steamed and flattened to create flakes
Quick (Instant or Microwavable) Oats Oat groats are steamed for an even longer period of time so that they cook quickly in water; they’re also rolled into thinner pieces to cook more quickly, which increases their GI
Steel-Cut (Irish) Oats More finely-cut and denser than rolled oats; they take longer to cook
Porridge Made with oat groats that have been steamed and ground into a meal-like texture
Steel-cut oats are best for type 2 diabetes because they are the least-processed version of oat groats. “Rolled oats have a higher GI than steel-cut oats as they actually have been partially cooked, making them increase your blood sugar faster,” says Kaufman.
But rolled oats are still better than instant versions. Oatmeal from rolled oats has a GI score of 55 per serving, while instant oatmeal has a score of 79, as Harvard Health Publishing notes.
Where a food falls on the GI suggests the effect that food may have on blood sugar levels, but the GI does not take all aspects of the food, including portion size, into account. Glycemic load (GL), on the other hand, offers a more complete picture of how a food eaten in a specific portion is likely to affect your blood sugar level, according to Oregon State University. In a sense, compared with GI, GL is a more precise way to determine whether certain foods consumed in moderation may impact blood sugar.
According to previous data, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, rolled oats have a low GL of 9, while instant oats have a high GL of 24. Keep in mind, though, that your individual response to foods can vary.
Topping Dos and Don’ts for a Diabetes-Friendly Bowl of Oatmeal
If you want a sweet bowl of oatmeal and some toppings, opt for fresh fruit over dried fruit, as the ADA notes. The latter has a much higher GI (plus, portion sizes tend to be smaller, and less filling).
Nuts such as almonds and walnuts are also good for those with type 2 diabetes and add fiber, protein, and healthy types of fat to your meal. But keep your portions small, as these are high in calories and fat — the Cleveland Clinic says one serving is equivalent to 1 ounce, or about the size of the palm of your hand.
For her own bowl of oatmeal, Kaufman says, “I usually love to add raspberries or blueberries into my oatmeal in order to add even more fiber than just the oats themselves.” Ground flaxseed is another nutritious way to top off any bowl of oatmeal with added benefits of fiber and heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids, says Mayo Clinic.
“When deciding on oatmeal, you want to stay away from any with added sweeteners,” cautions Kaufman. Quick oats are often laden with added sweeteners to create flavors such as “Maple and Brown Sugar” or “Peach,” all of which you should avoid with type 2 diabetes. If you must use sweeteners other than fruit, the ADA suggests the following:
aspartame (Equal, Nutrasweet)
saccharin (Sweet ‘n Low)
acesulfame K (Sunett, Sweet One)
A Final Word on Why Oatmeal Is a Healthy Breakfast for Those With Type 2 Diabetes
When it comes to oatmeal, cooking methods matter too. As a rule of thumb, Kaufman notes, “the longer it takes to cook your oats, the better they are for you.” Properly prepared oats may take a little more time, but the potential benefits for type 2 diabetes — better blood sugar control, decreased cholesterol and inflammation, and help with weight management — are worth it.