Is Oatmeal Good for People with Diabetes?

Oatmeal, also known as porridge, is a popular breakfast food made from oats. There are several different types of oatmeal including rolled oats (old-fashioned), instant, and steel-cut.

All oatmeal starts with whole raw oats, which are harvested and cleaned. The outer shell, or hull, is removed, leaving the edible grain or “groat” behind. People can buy and consume oat groats, but they need to be cooked for 50-60 minutes to soften.

Steel-cut oats are made when the groats are chopped with a metal blade. Steel-cut oats cook more quickly – about 20-30 minutes – because they are further broken down.

Rolled oats or old-fashioned oatmeal is made by steaming and rolling the groats into flakes. This cuts cooking time down to 3-5 minutes.

Instant oats or “quick oats” are made by further steaming and rolling the oats, bringing the cook time down to as little as 30-60 seconds.

The texture of steel-cut, old-fashioned, and instant oats differs widely, and which one is best is a personal preference. People who have tried quick oats and not enjoyed their softer texture should try the hardier steel-cut oats.

The nutritional profile of each cut of oats is the same when they are plain. However, many instant oats have added sugar and flavorings and are often high in sodium. Also, the higher the level of processing, the quicker the speed of digestion, and the higher the glycemic index, a measure of how quickly blood sugar rises when eating.

How does oatmeal affect people with diabetes?

Oatmeal is mainly a source of carbohydrate. Carbohydrates are converted to sugar when digested and increase sugar levels in the bloodstream. Carbohydrates that have fiber cause a slower release of sugar into the bloodstream, lowering the potential spike in blood sugar after a meal.

A diet that is high in processed carbohydrates, especially from sugar and packaged processed foods, increases the risk of blood sugar spikes after a meal because they are digested quickly.

A spoon full of oats.
Oatmeal contains complex carbohydrates which are useful for managing blood sugar levels.

Foods that digest quickly can cause quick blood sugar spikes and make it difficult to manage blood sugar levels, especially when eaten alone, which often happens at breakfast.

Vegetables, fruits, and whole grains contain complex carbohydrates that are full of fiber and nutrients that fuel the body and give sustained energy.

People should form their meals and snacks around these healthy carbohydrates. Adding in some protein and healthy fat gives a nutritionally complete meal. Some foods contain all three of these components in one, while others may need to be paired up. Mixing proteins and fats with carbohydrates can further slow down digestion, which can help minimize spikes.

Oatmeal contains complex carbohydrate with little protein or fat. Healthy fats are a necessary part of the diet and help people feel full and satisfied. Protein helps to keep people fuller longer and will promote more stable blood sugar levels when paired with a complex carbohydrate.

By combining a complex carbohydrate, lean protein, and healthy fat, people can reduce hunger and cravings while providing all three of the body’s required macronutrients.

First, start with one half cup of plain oats. Avoid pre-sweetened or flavored oats. Add a source of healthy fats like walnuts, almonds, chia seeds, hemp seeds, or pecans. As a bonus, nuts and seeds also add a little bit of protein.

People can cook their oats in milk or add milk to the oats after they are cooked for more protein. Cow’s milk or soy milk are the best milks for an extra protein boost because almond milk and coconut milk are not good sources of protein. However, these also provide more carbohydrate.

The same is true for fruit. Fruit will add flavor but also carbohydrate which needs to be accounted for by people who manage their blood sugar by tracking carbohydrate grams.

Plain Greek yogurt is a low-carbohydrate option that may add some creaminess to the oatmeal. To jazz up the flavor, people can mix in a few drops of almond or vanilla extract, or sprinkle with cinnamon.

Nutritional profile of oatmeal

According to the United States Department of Agriculture National Nutrition Database, one-half cup of non-fortified, dry, instant oats contains:

A pile of oats.
Half a cup of instant oats contains 27 grams of carbohydrate and 0.4 grams of sugar.
  • 153 calories
  • 3 grams of fat
  • 27 grams of carbohydrate
  • 0.4 grams of sugar
  • 4 grams of fiber
  • 5 grams of protein

One-half cup of uncooked instant oats also provides:

  • 25 percent of daily thiamin needs
  • 19 percent of iron
  • 28 percent of magnesium
  • 33 percent of phosphorus
  • 20 percent of zinc
  • 147 percent of manganese
  • 33 percent of selenium

One packet of instant raisin and spice oatmeal has 15 grams of sugar and 210 milligrams of sodium per serving compared with the 0.4 grams of sugar and 0 grams of sodium in plain oats.

Other ways to enjoy oatmeal

A bowl of oatmeal with fruit.
Oatmeal can be combined easily with fruit and dairy products to create a quick and balanced meal.

Oatmeal doesn’t just have to be for breakfast and doesn’t even have to be sweet. People with diabetes can enjoy savory oatmeal as well. Making savory oatmeal is a great way to switch up a normal oatmeal routine and make a quick, healthy, complete meal.

Vegetables like mushrooms, spinach, and green onions make great mix-ins, as well as spices like black pepper and cumin. Top with a small amount of shredded cheddar or parmesan and a fried pasture-raised egg.

Healthy oatmeal recipes for people with diabetes

Chocolate-strawberry overnight oats
Pumpkin-spiced steel-cut oats
Microwave banana oatmeal
Wild blueberry oats with coconut, ginger, and hemp
Savory oatmeal with sautéed mushroom, arugula, and fried egg

The bottom line

People with diabetes should avoid instant oatmeals that are high in sugar or look for the less-processed options. Oatmeal can be a healthy breakfast option, especially when a protein and a healthy fat source are added for balance.