What’s the deal with breakfast, anyway? After all, it’s just a meal. But of all of the “three squares,” breakfast seems to be the meal most surrounded by controversy. Many of us were raised to start the day off on the right foot and eat something before we headed off to school. These days, though, you might be wondering if it really makes sense to eat in the morning, especially if you find that eating leads to those dreaded morning high blood sugars. Should you eat breakfast if you have diabetes? And if so, what is the best type of breakfast to eat?
The benefits of breakfast for diabetes
First things first. There are some compelling reasons to literally “break your fast” in the morning. For starters, eating a healthy breakfast can make it easier to manage your weight. In fact, there’s some evidence that eating more of your calories at the start of the day helps with weight loss. The benefits don’t end there, though. Other reasons to jump start your day with a bite to eat include:
• Fewer cravings and less hunger during the day
• A lower risk of heart disease
• Lower blood pressure
• Lower cholesterol
• Better concentration and productivity
• Higher physical activity levels throughout the day (yes, eating breakfast really does give you energy!)
Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disorder in which the immune system attacks and destroys the insulin-producing beta cells in the pancreas. As a result, the pancreas produces little or no insulin. Type 1 diabetes is also characterized by the presence of certain autoantibodies against insulin or other components of the insulin-producing system such as glutamic acid decarboxylase (GAD), tyrosine phosphatase, and/or islet cells.
When the body does not have enough insulin to use the glucose that is in the bloodstream for fuel, it begins breaking down fat reserves for energy. However, the breakdown of fat creates acidic by-products called ketones, which accumulate in the blood. If enough ketones accumulate in the blood, they can cause a potentially life-threatening chemical imbalance known as ketoacidosis.
Type 1 diabetes often develops in children, although it can occur at any age. Symptoms include unusual thirst, a need to urinate frequently, unexplained weight loss, blurry vision, and a feeling of being tired constantly. Such symptoms tend to be acute.
Diabetes is diagnosed in one of three ways – a fasting plasma glucose test, an oral glucose tolerance test, or a random plasma glucose test – all of which involve drawing blood to measure the amount of glucose in it.
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Diabetes and breakfast
When it comes to diabetes prevention, breakfast eaters seem to have an advantage over the skippers. A review study published in The Journal of Nutrition in January 2019 that looked at more than 96,000 people showed that those who skipped breakfast once a week had a 6% higher chance of developing type 2 diabetes; skipping breakfast four or five times a week increased the risk by 55%.
What if you have diabetes? Well, researchers from Tel Aviv found that people with type 2 diabetes who skipped breakfast one day had lunchtime blood sugars that were 37% higher than on the day they ate breakfast, and dinner blood sugars that were 27% higher. Furthermore, the study (which was published in the journal Diabetes Care), concluded that even cutting back on carbs at lunch and dinner didn’t do much to lower high blood sugars if someone skipped breakfast.
Other research indicates that omitting the first meal of the day boosts blood sugar spikes throughout the day, along with A1C levels (a measure of glucose control over the previous 2–3 months), and this may be because beta cells lose their “memory” between dinner and lunch the next day if breakfast is skipped — meaning, they don’t do so well with producing insulin. The result? Higher blood sugars during the day.
The downside of breakfast for diabetes
Not everyone eats breakfast, and maybe that’s OK. Breakfast may not “work” for you for many reasons — for example, you just aren’t hungry, or eating breakfast makes you hungrier later in the day. You may also be part of the breakfast skipper club if you notice that eating in the morning causes blood sugar spikes, either a few hours later or many hours later.
Everyone is different, and you may prefer not to eat first thing in the morning. However, if you’re interested in eating breakfast but doing so doesn’t seem to agree with your blood sugars, it could be that your food choices at breakfast aren’t doing you any favors. When you think of typical American breakfast foods, they’re usually loaded with refined, low-fiber carbs, such as bagels, donuts, processed cereals (that may or may not contain sugar), smoothies and fruited yogurt. And let’s not forget about your morning coffee, which could be laden with carbs and calories. (Even black coffee can lead to rises in blood glucose in some people).
Bottom line on breakfast for diabetes
There are some pretty compelling reasons (with evidence behind them) to kick off your day with some food in your stomach. Before jumping on the breakfast bandwagon, however, it pays to put some thought into what you’ll eat. Also, keep in mind that you don’t have to eat typical breakfast fare in the morning. Who says you can’t eat a piece of chicken or fish, or a bowl of vegetables?
What should you eat for breakfast if you have diabetes?
Here are some breakfasts to get you going in the morning:
Scrambled egg and turkey bacon burrito
Use a low-carb tortilla if you want to cut carbs further
Cottage cheese bowl
Combine 2% fat cottage cheese with berries and almonds. For a more savory bowl, use crumbled bacon, avocado and cherry tomatoes.
Greek yogurt with fruit and nuts
Go for plain, unsweetened Greek yogurt and mix in your choice of fresh fruit with a sprinkling of chopped nuts, such as walnuts. For an extra fiber boost, stir in a spoonful of chia seeds or ground flax seed.
Tofu power bowl
Here’s a make-ahead recipe that’s worth the effort. Double the batch so that you get a couple of meals out of this.
The basis of this recipe is quinoa, a high-protein grain. Combine 1 cup cooked quinoa, 1/2 cup of the milk of your choice, 1/4 cup plain Greek yogurt, 1 tablespoon of chia seeds and 1 teaspoon of vanilla extract in a mason jar. Refrigerate overnight and enjoy the next day.
Peanut butter protein bites
For a truly grab-and-go breakfast, whip up a batch of these protein bites ahead of time (no baking involved) so that you have a stockpile for the week ahead.
Start by baking a cauliflower pizza crust, such as Green Giant. Then, top with scrambled eggs, sausage crumbles (regular or vegetarian), shredded cheese and any veggies you want. Pop the pizza back in the oven for about 5 minutes until the cheese is melted.
Smoothies aren’t out of the question, but watch the high-carb ingredients. Use water or unsweetened milk rather than juice as the liquid. Boost protein by adding plain Greek yogurt, nut butter or protein powder. Focus on low-carb veggies for added nutrition, such as your favorite greens (spinach, kale or parsley) and sneak in some avocado and flax seed for fiber.
Dashing out the door? You can still find time for breakfast.
• Throw together a turkey and cheese sandwich.
• Toast up a whole-grain English muffin and spread with your favorite nut butter.
• Reach for a hard-boiled egg and a piece of fruit.
• Grab a lower-carb granola or energy bar, such as Kind Breakfast Protein bars, Quest bars, RX Bars or Kashi Chewy Granola bars.
Finally, be willing to experiment with different types of breakfast foods to learn how they impact your blood sugars. Try paired checking, which involves checking your blood sugar at the start of the meal and then again, two hours later. A rise in blood sugar of no more than 30 to 50 points is a good sign that the breakfast is a keeper!