Here’s What To Know About Choosing Cereal if You Have Diabetes

There are better breakfast options, but if it’s got to be cereal, look for whole grains, high fiber and no added sugar

Variety of cereals in different bowls

When you think of a quintessential quick breakfast, there’s perhaps nothing that comes to mind more than a bowl of cereal with milk. It’s estimated that more than 280 million people in the United States opt for cereal as their breakfast of choice.

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But if you’re living with diabetes, is that old stand-by the best way to start your day?

Unfortunately, no.

“We don’t often recommend cereal as a healthy choice. That goes for people with diabetes, and others as well,” says certified diabetes care and education specialist Shannon Knapp, RN, CDCES. “Cereal is often very high in simple carbohydrates, added sugar and starches that don’t give your body the fuel it needs to be healthy. And for people with diabetes, it can negatively impact glucose levels.”

But if it’s cereal that’s calling your name, some cereals are better than others. What makes for a better-for-you cereal choice if you have diabetes? And what are some healthier breakfasts to consider? Knapp shares advice.

What to look for in a diabetes-friendly cereal

Managing your glucose levels (aka blood sugar) is job No. 1 when you’re living with diabetes. And a great many cereals out there won’t do your glucose levels any favors. For example, one bowl of fruit-flavored corn puffs contains 7 teaspoons of sugar.

Still, sometimes, nothing hits the spot quite like a comforting bowl of cereal. Or maybe you’re in a bind and cereal is the only breakfast at your disposal.

Knapp advises that if you have diabetes and are hankering for a bowl of cereal, you’ll want to pay close attention to the nutrition label.

Here’s what to look for when choosing cereal if you live with diabetes.

Whole grains

In their most natural state, grains have a lot of health benefits. They contain healthy vitamins, minerals, fiber and unsaturated (healthy) fats. But processed and refined grains lose much of their nutrients during manufacturing.

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“Whole grains are the healthier choice for everyone, but for people with diabetes, it’s especially important to choose whole grains over processed ones,” Knapp says. “Whole grains are complex carbohydrates, which means they’re digested more slowly and provide a steady stream of glucose, rather than a quick spike.”

Look for phrases like “100% whole grain” on your cereal’s nutrition label. Or a “Whole Grain” stamp from the Whole Grains Council.

Avoid cereals that contain “enriched” or “refined” grains.

Fiber

Your best bet for a cereal when you’re living with diabetes is one that has at least 3 grams of fiber. Why?

Even though fiber is a type of carbohydrate, it isn’t absorbed by your body. So, it doesn’t affect your glucose levels in the way that other carbs do. And fiber helps you feel fuller, longer. A cereal that has a high fiber count can help keep you from reaching for “second breakfast” soon after.

You can up the fiber content in your cereal by including a handful of berries with your breakfast, too.

Protein

Protein is an important part of a healthy meal plan, especially for people with diabetes. It helps keep you full and provides energy for your body.

“I always recommend a bit of protein with every meal, breakfast included,” Knapp says. “So, if you’re eating cereal and can’t manage a protein on the side, like an egg, a cereal with protein in it can at least help you get a bit of protein.”

Up the protein content of your cereal by choosing a high-protein milk. Or use a protein shake in place of milk. You can also mix in nuts or seeds into your cereal for a protein boost. Consider walnuts, almonds, pecans, chia seeds, pumpkin seeds or flaxseed as protein-packed additions.

Little or no added sugar

In truth, no one needs added sugar. It’s not an important part of anyone’s healthy eating habits. But for people with diabetes, limiting your added sugar intake is even more important.

Ideally, your breakfast cereal shouldn’t contain any added sugar, but that can be a tough find. Keep the added sugar count as low as possible. Aim for cereal with 5% or less of the daily value of added sugar per serving.

And don’t forget portion size. Even a bowl with just 1 or 2 grams of added sugar per serving can quickly become much higher if you eat more of it than the label recommends.

Alternatives to cereal for people with diabetes

Cold cereal in the morning may be a staple for a lot of people, but there are plenty of more nutrient-dense breakfasts that can be better choices.

“A mixed meal is always going to be the best option,” Knapp encourages. “That’s to say, a meal with a few different whole foods from different food groups.”

Need some mixed-meal breakfast ideas? Try:

  • Whole-grain toast topped with peanut butter, with berries on the side.
  • Whole-wheat English muffin topped with avocado and a fried egg.
  • Oatmeal topped with berries and nuts.

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Why people with diabetes need breakfast

They say breakfast is the most important meal of the day. And it just might be, particularly for people with diabetes.

“A lot of people can’t sit down to a full breakfast all the time, and we know that. But getting something healthy to eat in the morning to get your metabolism going is going to make a difference,” Knapp shares.

Here’s why: After a night of rest, you tend to have more insulin resistance in the morning. So, it’s not uncommon for your glucose levels to be higher when you wake up. A healthy breakfast can help get your glucose levels on track for the day.

If cereal is what’s on the menu, choose wisely. But even better: Look for breakfasts with whole foods from different food groups.

If you have questions about how to best manage diabetes, talk with a healthcare provider. They can help you come up with strategies and healthy eating advice that works for you.

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