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Whether you’re a carb-counting pro or you’ve recently been diagnosed with diabetes, choosing the best carbohydrate foods can create many a WTF moment.
The latest food getting negative PR and messing with your grocery list? Cereal. The reason? Sugar — aka the frenemy of anyone with diabetes.
Even cereals with the loveliest labels filled with “organic” and “healthy” claims can be full of hidden sugars. But that doesn’t mean you need to lose all faith in this breakfast staple.
Cereal is a carbohydrate food, which you have to be mindful of when you have high blood sugar. But carbs are not inherently bad, so even if you have diabetes, you don’t really need to avoid them.
Instead, choose cereals that work for you, not against you. Here’s how.
Yes. Is it the best daily breakfast option? Not always.
The good news is that plenty of cereals can fit into a healthy diet and help support blood sugar control. You just need to know where to look and what to look (and look out) for.
The glycemic index (GI) was developed as a way to assess the effect a carbohydrate-containing food has on blood sugar levels. It measures how quickly (or slowly) a food is digested, absorbed, and ultimately used for energy.
Foods are ranked on a scale from 0 to 100 — the lower the score, the smaller the effect on blood sugar. A score of 55 or less is considered a low GI, and a score of 70 to 100 is considered high.
Foods low on the index have the smallest effects on blood sugar and help us feel full. This is mostly due to fiber and protein, which your body takes longer to break down and digest. Beans, legumes, and 100 percent whole-wheat bread are good examples.
If you live with diabetes, your body doesn’t produce or use all the insulin necessary to get that sugar where it needs to go (your muscles and tissues), which means there’s more floating around in your blood.
Because low-GI foods take longer to digest and absorb, the sugar they contain is released into your blood more slowly, helping keep your blood sugar levels more stable.
High-GI foods are typically made up of simple carbohydrates, which are low in fiber and protein (think white bread, saltine crackers, pretzels, and Doritos). Your body breaks them down quickly to be used for energy or stored for later use (usually as fat).
These foods don’t help you feel full or help stabilize blood sugar. In fact, you’ll likely be hungry again soon after eating them since your body uses them so quickly.
Since cereal can fall almost anywhere on this list, depending on the ingredients, it’s important to scour those nutrition labels and then use the GI to figure out how a cereal will impact your blood sugar.
But since we’re all about easy living, here’s a rough list of cereal GI rankings from the American Diabetes Association.
Rule No. 1: Don’t get bogged down in every detail of a label, because no product is perfect. Instead, just follow these simple guidelines:
Be suspicious of “fat-free”
When fat is removed, other ingredients — often including sugar or starches — are added to create texture and flavor.
The truth is, some fat is beneficial to support healthy blood sugar levels, so you shouldn’t omit fat from your diet. Think salad dressings and dessert or snack items.
Check serving sizes
Cereal serving sizes typically range from 1/4 cup to 1 1/2 cups and tend to be pretty small in relation to nutrient density.
For example, the serving size for muesli is 1/2 cup. Measure out one serving — is that the amount you usually eat? Or do you double or triple it?
If you answered the latter, you’ll also need to double or triple the nutrient numbers from the label. That means double or triple the carbs and the impact on blood glucose.
Check the total carbohydrates
This number should always be less than 40 grams per serving (ideally less than 35 grams). Below total carbohydrates on the label. you’ll see dietary fiber, total sugar, and added sugars — these make up the total carbohydrate content of the food.
Dietary fiber should be at least 4 to 5 grams per serving, total sugars less than 10 grams per serving, and added sugars minimal. Focus on choosing higher fiber content and lower total sugar.
Don’t forget protein
Aim for at least 4 grams per serving. Remember: Fat, fiber, and protein help stabilize blood sugar spikes and help you feel full.
Look at the ingredients
Be sure sugar isn’t one of the first three ingredients listed. Ingredients are listed by weight, meaning those in the largest amounts are listed first and those in the smallest amounts are listed last.
When looking at cereal labels, look for the words “whole-grain” and ingredients like oats, quinoa, barley, amaranth, and wheat. “Enriched” means beneficial nutrients (B vitamins, iron, etc.) have been added to the grain to meet your daily nutrient needs.
Beware added sugar
Added sugar comes in many forms and hides under many names — molasses, high-fructose corn syrup, brown rice syrup, cane syrup, coconut sugar, and agave nectar are just a few.
Any word ending in “-ose” or any type of syrup is code for sugar. Be sure these items are not listed first and there are no more than two sources of sugar on the label.
This mixture of oats, nuts, seeds, and usually some dried fruit is high in fiber and protein, so it’s a great breakfast option. Just be wary of added ingredients and sugar.
If DIY is your thing, you can whip up some homemade muesli with just a few ingredients and no added sugar.
Rolled oats, steel-cut oats, and oat bran are breakfast winners. Quick-cooking oats are an OK choice but clock in higher on the index than we’d prefer.
No need to get fancy: Quaker Old-Fashioned Oats offer 4 grams of fiber, 5 grams of protein, and 0 grams of added sugar per serving.
We also like Purely Elizabeth Original Superfood Oatmeal. This brand ups the oatmeal game by adding quinoa, chia, flax, and hemp seeds, so you get healthy omega-3 fats, 5 grams of fiber, 6 grams of protein, and absolutely no sugar per serving.
Try cooking oats with unsweetened milk, cinnamon, walnuts, and blueberries for a healthy fat, fiber, and antioxidant boost.
Quinoa is a gluten-free, protein-packed sub for oats. Bob’s Red Mill quinoa varieties offer 5 grams of fiber and 6 grams of protein per serving, with only one ingredient — yep, quinoa.
Food for Life cereals
Food for Life cereals (and breads) contain real-food ingredients with no added junk, and they typically have a low glycemic index.
Remember to consider the total carbs in one serving plus any additional carbs in the milk or fruit you may add.
Kashi Go Original
Kashi Go Original is a nutritionally balanced cereal (but beware some of their other products, which contain lots of our pal sugar).
In a 1 1/4-cup serving of Kashi Go Original, you get 180 calories, 13 grams of fiber, 8 grams of sugar, and 8 grams of protein. Add a handful of walnuts and some blackberries for a nutrient-packed and tasty breakfast.
Avoiding sugar-laden cereals like Frosted Flakes, Cap’n Crunch, Apple Jacks, and even some types of granola seems like a no-brainer. And it is.
But let’s look at some cereals aren’t the best choices even though they might seem healthy.
Instant oatmeal sounds healthy, and we wish it was. Besides being stripped of most of the grain’s nutrients, including fiber and protein, it has quite a high glycemic index. And the flavored varieties generally contain a good bit of added sugar.
Corn Flakes are an oldie but not really a goodie. At first glance, they may seem like a great choice, with 80 calories, no fat, and only 18 grams of total carbohydrates per serving.
But one serving also contains less than 1 gram of fiber and only 1 gram of protein. And sugar is the second ingredient listed.
Like Corn Flakes, Special K is low in total carbs and sugar but is not a good source of fiber or protein.
- Cereal can be a part of a healthy, balanced diet, but it’s our job to be informed consumers.
- Look for at least 4 grams of fiber and 4 grams of protein per serving.
- Total carbohydrates should come in under 35 grams per serving.
- Make sure sugar isn’t one of the first three ingredients listed.
- It’s important to discuss diet with your healthcare provider, especially if you’re taking insulin for blood sugar control. There are no one-size-fits-all diet recommendations. If seeing a registered dietitian is an option for you, they can help you figure out the best plan for you.