We’ve all heard the saying, “Breakfast is the most important meal of the day,” but the reality is that our busy schedules make it difficult to give breakfast much thought. The majority of us are just struggling to get out the door in the mornings, let alone prepare a fully-balanced meal.
If we do eat breakfast, it typically consists of something small, simple and on-the-go. For many of my clients living with type 2, breakfast might be a piece of fruit, a portable yogurt or a latte from a drive-thru window. While eating something for breakfast is better than nothing, if you have diabetes, skimping on a more nutritiously-balanced meal at the start of the day can set you and your blood glucose levels off on the wrong foot. So, I advise my clients to pay close attention to how they’re fueling themselves in the morning – here are some key components that I recommend they include for a well-balanced, diabetes-friendly breakfast:
By now you’ve probably heard that protein is a mainstay of every meal, helping to fill us up without affecting blood glucose levels. This is especially important in the mornings when your body has gone 8-12 hours without any food in its system. Eggs, nuts, seeds or plain yogurt are great glucose and heart-friendly sources of protein. Filling up at least a quarter of your plate with these foods can prevent you from overdoing it on the carbohydrates, which tend to be higher in many traditional American breakfast foods.
If you are turning to meat for your morning protein, limit your intake of the more popular processed breakfast meats like sausage and bacon, which have been linked to higher risks of heart disease and cancer.
While it may seem unconventional to include vegetables in your breakfast meal, it is a great way to start the day. In fact, many other countries around the world incorporate vegetables into their first meal of the day. Veggies are not only packed with essential vitamins and minerals to help your body perform its daily functions, but they are a great source of fiber, which can help slow the absorption of glucose into the blood stream and help to avoid large spikes in blood sugar levels.
If you’re not too keen on eating a bowl of salad or steamed veggies for breakfast, start small by adding in a handful of spinach to an egg scramble or adding tomato and greens to a piece of avocado toast. Opt for non-starchy veggie varieties like leafy greens, zucchini and radishes and save the more starchy varieties, like hash brown potatoes, for a more occasional event.
Fruit gets a bad reputation for contributing to high blood glucose levels. I have had many clients tell me that they avoid fruit entirely because they are afraid of how it will spike their blood sugar. Fortunately, though, managing diabetes doesn’t mean you have to eliminate fruit. In fact, whole fruit should be an essential part of everyone’s daily diet, even if it is kept to modest amounts.
While I would not recommend eating fruit on its own as a breakfast meal, it can be a great source of high-fiber carbohydrates when paired with a healthy fat or protein. For example, a small banana slathered with a tablespoon of peanut or almond butter creates the perfect mix of carbohydrates, healthy fats and protein to help slow the absorption of glucose into the bloodstream. If you find that higher starch fruits like bananas or tropical fruits like pineapple simply leave your blood glucose surging no matter how much protein is paired with them, then opt for a handful of fresh berries or a small apple. Different foods can affect people’s blood glucose differently so it’s important to learn what foods work best for you.
One more important thing to note is that fruit juice is not in the same ballpark as whole fruit. Even fresh-pressed fruit juice contains high amounts of sugar and little fiber to help mitigate the effects of rising blood glucose. So, while a cup of OJ might seem like a good way to balance out your meal, a fresh, whole orange is a much better option.
Though grains are commonly a focus in American breakfasts, many of the traditional favorites (low-fiber cereals, pancakes and French toast) are made from refined grains and also contain a high amount of carbohydrates which can boost blood glucose beyond healthy levels if eaten in excess.
You don’t have to eliminate all grains from your breakfast but they should certainly not be the main focus of your meal. For example, adding one slice of high-fiber, whole grain toast to your hard-boiled egg is a great way to boost blood sugars in the morning to healthy quantities. A cup of plain, old-fashioned oatmeal sweetened with fresh fruit and topped with sliced almonds is also a great combo and a much better alternative to pre-packaged, sweetened instant oatmeal or a bowl of sugary breakfast cereal.
Choosing whole grains as opposed to refined versions is key. Whole grains contain the fiber and protein you need to release glucose at steadier pace.
Plant-based fats are another food that has been gaining a lot more attention for their health benefits, especially for those managing diabetes. Long gone are the days of promoting fat-free and low-fat diets. In fact, many fat-free or low-fat products make up for lack of flavor by adding in spoonful’s of sugar.
Adding a serving of healthy fats to your breakfast meal can help the meal digest more slowly, allowing for a slower release of glucose into the blood stream and longer, sustained energy between meals. To add fats into your breakfast, try incorporating half of an avocado or a tablespoon of nut butter onto a whole grain slice of toast or stirring in a tablespoon of coconut oil into a cup of oatmeal. Cooking eggs in olive or avocado oil is also a nice way to boost your healthy fat intake.
Remember, not all fats are created equal and should be enjoyed in modest amounts. Eat fewer foods with high amounts of saturated or animal fats, like butter and lard—which still contain nutritious health properties but need to be limited. And it’s best to completely avoid foods with man-made fats, such as foods with palm oil or partially hydrogenated oils, which are high in trans fats.
Starting your day with a healthy, well-balanced breakfast can go a long way in better managing your diabetes. By stabilizing blood glucose early on in the day and eating a meal filled with fiber, healthy fats and protein, you can sustain your energy over a longer period of time without feeling the need for a sugar or caffeine pick-me-up.
Not really a breakfast eater? It’s okay to start small. Choose a food with a good dose of protein, like a hard-boiled egg or a slice of whole grain toast smeared with avocado and sea salt. Your energy levels and your blood glucose will thank you.