Photo credit: @drcaseyskitchen
[Click below to listen to an audio version of this article.]
The first meal of the day can also be the most treacherous to our metabolic health. We’re often rushed, getting to work or squeezing in exercise, and so many of our go-to options—bagels, cereal, even “healthy” options like oatmeal or smoothies—can be blood sugar bombs, packed with hidden carbohydrates. We want to avoid blood glucose spikes anytime, but research shows keeping glycemic levels low (and protein high) early can spur higher energy levels throughout the day. (Of course, that doesn’t mean a ham-and-cheese omelet every morning, which presents its own long-term health problems.)
We’ve rounded up a few breakfast swap ideas, as well as some simple guidelines to keep in mind as you find the a.m. options that will start your day right.
Foods to avoid
Potatoes: High-carb foods like potatoes (in all their forms, including home fries and hash browns) tend to cause blood sugar to spike and dip for most people. Sadly, sweet potatoes aren’t much better. Though they have more beta-carotene than their white counterparts, their glycemic load—the amount the food will raise your blood sugar—is nearly as high.
Bread, bagels, and flour tortillas: Any carbohydrate-heavy foods made with refined flour will elevate your glucose levels. One study found that the more a grain is processed, the more your insulin response increases.
Instant oatmeal: In small portions—and balanced out with protein and healthy fat—steel-cut and even old-fashioned, or rolled, oats can work for some people (though many of our members find any oatmeal leads to large spikes). But because instant oats are partially cooked and then dried (aka processed), they tend to spike nearly everyone’s blood sugar.
Maple syrup: You may have heard maple syrup is healthy because it has minerals and antioxidants. But it’s still about 60% sucrose (with some glucose and fructose) and will almost certainly spike your blood sugar.
Sweetened yogurt: It can contain as much as three sugar cubes’ worth of sugar per serving, according to British researchers.
Juice: The sugar in fruit juice is usually naturally occurring, but it’s missing the slow-digesting fiber found in whole fruits. So what? In a study of 18 people with Type 2 diabetes, those who ate a high-fiber diet had better glucose metrics than those who ate only about 15 grams of fiber per day.
Granola: Whether made with honey, maple syrup, or brown sugar, granola typically contains added sugar. And it’s often made with dried fruit, which has a concentrated sugar content compared to fresh fruit.
Donuts, pastries, pancakes, and waffles: Breakfast pastries of any type usually contain both refined flour and added sugar. Even without syrup, filling, or frosting (all essentially pure sugar), they can be glucose land mines.
Foods to include
Anything with omega-3s: Higher red blood cell concentrations of these essential fatty acids has been linked to better metabolic profiles. You’ll find omega-3s in fish (especially salmon, sardines, oysters, anchovies, and mackerel), flax seeds, chia seeds, and walnuts.
Whole-food fats and proteins: Eating carbs on their own is more likely to spike your glucose than pairing them with fat and protein. Case in point: Research shows that people who ate almonds with white bread had significantly lower post-meal spikes than eating white bread alone. So if you opt for a small piece of whole-grain (or even better, almond-flour) toast, spread on some almond butter or avocado, which contain fat and protein.
Related article: 12 glucose-lowering strategies to improve metabolic fitness
Micronutrient-rich plant foods: Micronutrients, or vitamins and minerals, matter to metabolism, and it appears getting them through food is preferable to supplements. Try to get them from fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, nuts, and olive oil.
Nuts and seeds: They contain fiber, omega-3s, healthy fat and protein, and micronutrients. Enough said.
Fermented foods, like yogurt or some cottage cheese: These contain probiotics, or good bacteria, that can be beneficial to your gut microbiome (and an imbalance there has been linked to metabolic disorders).
Cinnamon: A Turkish study found that people who consumed 1 to 6 grams of cinnamon (that’s about half to 2 and a half teaspoons) a day for over a month had a statistically significant drop in their post-meal glucose levels.
Natural sweeteners: Researchers are still learning more about natural sweeteners, but one small study suggests that monk fruit, made from the juice of the green melon, and stevia, made from leaves of the stevia plant, had little effect on 24-hour glucose levels. And a separate study indicates that allulose, a low-calorie sweetener naturally occurring in raisins, dried figs, and molasses, may actually lower blood sugar compared to eating a meal with a different sugar.
Related article: Are there natural sweeteners that won’t raise my blood sugar?
Low-glycemic fruit: Fruits that fall low on the glycemic index scale tend to have less of an effect on glucose levels. These include berries, apples, and oranges.
Some swaps to get you started
If you’re an oatmeal person: Try chia pudding. Chia contains fiber, omega-3s, healthy fat, and protein. Extra credit: Add a cocoa powder to your pudding, as cocoa flavonoids may improve insulin sensitivity (look for natural cocoa, as Dutching and processing remove flavonoids).
If you want to squeeze in some veggies before lunch: Try a southwest tofu scramble (but skip the breakfast potatoes) or black bean tofu scramble with creamy salsa sauce (bonus: tofu is high in protein). Whip up a veggie-filled egg frittata (make sure to get pastured eggs, which have more omega-3s than the conventional kind). Or make breakfast tacos with sautéed zucchini, onions, and cauliflower (cruciferous vegetables, like cauliflower, contain a compound called sulforaphane, which can increase insulin sensitivity in people with diabetes) and flaxseed tortillas (flax is a good source of omega-3s).
If you love lattes: Try a cinnamon coconut latte made with cinnamon and slow-digesting fat (found in the coconut milk).
If you’re a yogurt-and-granola person: Try plain nondairy yogurt or full-fat Greek yogurt topped with nuts, chia seeds, coconut flakes, hemp seeds or ground flax seeds, and 1 to 2 tablespoons of wild organic blueberries or raspberries (frozen is fine) and sweetened with monk fruit if necessary. Or top your yogurt with grain-free granola.
If you tend to grab breakfast on the go: Try a green smoothie. The key with green smoothies is to make sure there isn’t too much fruit, but there are good fat and protein sources.
If you must have pastries: Your local grocery likely carries several low-carb or keto-friendly pancake mixes and frozen waffles, typically made with almond or coconut flour. You can find syrups made with stevia or monk fruit, but don’t expect them to taste like the real thing; better to find new favorite toppings like berries or peanut butter.