Oatmeal Alternatives for Better Blood Sugar

Swap out your morning bowl of oats for healthier options.
Oatmeal alternatives, is oatmeal healthy?

Oatmeal may be touted for its cholesterol-lowering properties, but it can still pose a challenge for individuals who struggle with blood sugar control. Most oatmeal you’ll find in your local grocery store has been highly processed and refined for quicker cooking times. This convenience comes at the cost of losing out on essential nutrients such as fiber, which helps to slow down digestion and mitigate sharp blood sugar spikes. For healthier breakfast options that are better for your blood sugar, try these healthy oatmeal alternatives in lieu of your morning bowl of oats. 

Oatmeal and diabetes: how oatmeal jeopardizes blood sugar

Processing and refining

The main culprit of unhealthy oatmeal is the processing and refining factors of common oats you’ll find at your local grocery store: namely, rolled oats and instant oats. Both oats have had the outer husk of the grain removed, were cut into fine flakes and then went through the refining process of being steamed and rolled over or flattened. Instant oats are basically rolled oats that have been flattened even more, so that the oats can cook in an instant; hence, the name. 

As with white flour, processing and refining whole grain oats — such as removing the outer husk — eliminates fiber and other essential nutrients found in oat groats. The oats are then cut, steamed and rolled over so that the oats disintegrate even more. While data shows that the fiber content of rolled oats and instant oats are not well below the amount that’s in steel-cut oats (a lesser processed oat), the thinness of the processed oat flakes means that your body digests and breaks down the food quicker.

Findings from a 2021 meta-analysis exploring the effects of oats and oat processing on postprandial blood glucose and insulin response found that “a disruption in the structural integrity of the oat kernel [was] likely associated with a loss in the glycemic benefits of oats.” In other words, eating disrupted oat kernels that have been processed — such as rolled oats and instant oats — results in more rapid conversion of carbs into glucose and a faster rate of glucose absorption into the bloodstream. For individuals with or at risk of developing diabetes, this means that such processed oats could bring on blood sugar spikes that stress the body’s internal systems. 

Another study found that simply adding 0.4 g of oat bran — specifically, oat beta-glucan derived from the endosperm of oat kernels, known for their rich fiber profile and their ability to lower blood glucose and cholesterol — to instant oats, reduced the glucose peak-rise in postprandial glycemic responses by 20%. Restoring the fiber content in a bowl of unhealthy and processed oats can slow the rise of blood glucose post-meal. 

Added sugar

Another challenge with oatmeal, particularly flavored instant oatmeal, is sugar. Flavored instant oatmeal — such as Quaker Oats Instant Oats in the flavor, Cinnamon & Spice — contains 10 grams of added sugar, representing 20% of the daily recommended value. Their Maple and Brown Sugar flavor contains 12 grams of added sugar. This is not to say that you shouldn’t enjoy flavor and variety in your morning meals, but you should consume added sugar in moderation. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020-2025 suggest keeping the intake of added sugar below 10% of your total daily calories. Alternatively, opt for and yet limit the use of natural sweeteners such as honey or maple syrup. 

Making healthier daily oats

The blood sugar-raising aspect of oats may surprise many of you for whom oatmeal is an integral part of your morning routine. Fortunately, there are workarounds for making healthier oats. 

First, you can swap out the rolled and instant oats in your cupboard for less processed oats such as oat groats or steel-cut oats. Oat groats are the hulled kernels of oat grains that retain the rich fiber found in the bran, endosperm and germ of oat grains. They look like slightly larger grains of rice. Steel-cut oats are basically oat groats that have been chopped up into smaller, edible pieces, maintaining a pinecone-looking shape: think grains of rice chopped in half. These two forms of oats are the least processed, making them more nutritionally dense than rolled oats or instant oats. Their rich fiber content, in particular, helps slow down your digestion and results in a slower rise in blood sugar.

To up the nutritional value of your morning oats, add in some form of protein, healthy fat and fiber — all of which play an important role in managing blood sugar and diabetes. These essential macronutrients can affect how fast your body breaks down food into glucose and how quickly glucose enters your bloodstream. See our report, How Protein, Fat, Carbs, and Fiber Affect Blood Sugar for general guidelines on how much of each macronutrient you need daily. 

Our final tip for making healthier oats is to consume or add less sugar to your bowl of oats, and to choose ingredients and toppings that are low on the Glycemic Index (GI). Most of what you eat gets broken down into glucose and you can avoid sharp blood sugar spikes by modulating your meal’s ingredients. 

Healthy oatmeal alternatives for better blood glucose control

Food plays a big role in blood glucose control. The key is to eat portion-controlled, nutritionally-dense foods that keep you satiated, will stave off hunger and contain nutrients that help slow the rise of your blood sugar levels. Here are three healthy oatmeal alternatives for better blood glucose control. 

Quinoa high fiber porridge

Quinoa is a great oatmeal alternative as it has rich protein and fiber contents, which help keep you satiated and slow the rise of your blood sugar post-meal. One cup of cooked quinoa packs about 40 grams of carbs, 8 grams of protein, 5 grams of dietary fiber and 3 grams of healthy fats. Substitute your morning oats with a quinoa porridge for a lighter and healthier cereal, loaded with protein.

To make a quinoa porridge for two (or three), you’ll need:

  • ½ cup quinoa
  • 1 cup milk (or ¾ cup for a thicker consistency)
  • ½ cup water
  • ¼ tsp ground cinnamon
  • Pinch of salt
  • Brown sugar or low-sugar fruits for topping

1. First, lightly toast your quinoa in a saucepan and season with cinnamon for a nice crunch in your porridge. 

2. Add your milk and water to the pan, salt to taste and bring it to a boil.

3. Lower the heat and let it simmer.

4. Cover the pan and cook for 20-25 minutes, or until quinoa has cooked through. Stir in-between to prevent burning.

5. Top with brown sugar or low-sugar fruits to add some sweetness.

Alternatively, cook your quinoa porridge in a slow-cooker overnight so that it is ready by the time you wake up. No cooking is necessary, breakfast is served. 

Freekeh breakfast bowl

Like quinoa, freekeh (pronounced “free-kah”) is another grain that makes for great oatmeal alternatives. This grain is a staple in many Middle Eastern cuisines including Egypt, Syria and Tunisia. Freekeh has a high protein and high fiber profile — even greater than those of quinoa — and it is rich in iron, calcium and zinc, which are essential minerals needed to support daily body functioning. It also contains prebiotics, fibers that support gut health through the promotion of healthy and beneficial microbes in the gut. It is no wonder this grain is such a food staple in many cuisines. For individuals with diabetes, this grain is a great oatmeal alternative because it happens to have a low Glycemic Index (GI) value (GI=29) and a low Glycemic Load (GL=4), making it a good food for blood sugar control. (Learn more in Glycemic Index vs. Glycemic Load: What’s The Difference?)

To make freekeh breakfast bowls for two, you’ll need:

  • ½ cup cracked freekeh
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 cup milk (or ¾ cup for thicker consistency)
  • ¼ tsp cinnamon
  • Pinch of salt
  • Toppings of your choice

In a saucepan, bring to boil the freekeh, water, milk, cinnamon and salt. Then, lower the heat and let it simmer for about 20-25 minutes. Serve with the toppings of your choice: pistachios and low-sugar fruits are great options. 

Chia and flaxseed pudding

You might be a fan of oatmeal because of overnight oats. They’re simple and delicious and they require very little preparation. The best part is, when you wake up in the morning, you don’t have to decide what to eat nor put in the effort to actually cook. Your breakfast is already prepared. You can achieve a similar “no-cook” breakfast with chia seeds and flax seeds; they’re a nutritional power duo. Each seed supplements the other with dietary fiber, healthy fats or protein, making this no-cook pudding a very balanced and nutritionally-dense breakfast food. The fiber, protein and healthy fats in this pudding will help slow down your digestion and refrain from a sharp rise in blood sugar levels. 

To make a chia flaxseed pudding, you’ll need:

  • ¼ cup ground flaxseed (aka flaxseed meal)
  • 2 tbsp chia seeds
  • 1 cup milk
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract (optional)
  • ½ banana (mashed)
  • Toppings of your choice

Like with overnight oats, simply mix the ingredients in a mason jar or a bowl, then let the pudding chill overnight. When you wake up in the morning, you’ll thank yourself for making this delicious breakfast the night before. 

Key takeaways

Is oatmeal healthy? It can be, but the most common types of oats (rolled or quick/instant), which are highly processed, can bring on a rise in your blood sugar. The processing methods used to produce rolled or quick/instant oats destroy much of the fiber and other essential nutrients that help slow the rate of digestion and subsequent glucose absorption into your bloodstream. Blood sugar control becomes more manageable when you practice portion control and consciously choose foods that are less processed and more nutritionally dense. Swap out your rolled or quick oats for less-processed oats such as oat groats or steel-cut oats for a healthier bowl of oatmeal. Even better, try some of the oatmeal alternatives we’ve shared here to add some variety to your breakfast menu.

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