Written by Xavier Toledo, BSc, Edited by Amy Brownstein, MS, RD
Those with type 2 diabetes are often told to avoid certain foods — including broad categories such as grains. Here at Reversing T2D, we disagree. So instead, we encourage our program members to embrace grains — and we’re not the only ones.
According to The American Diabetes Association (ADA), whole grains are a “superstar” food for those with diabetes . Not only are grains delicious and nutritious, but they can also play a key role in type 2 diabetes prevention, management, and reversal — a goal we’ve helped countless individuals achieve. Like many whole, plant-based foods, research has shown that whole grains play a favorable role in blood sugar management. For example, studies have found that compared to white rice, eating whole-grain rice (e.g., brown rice) is associated with significantly better blood sugar responses . This triumph of whole grains over refined grains is a common finding in the literature, and we’ll explore it further in this post.
It's important not to over-generalize when recommending grains to those with type 2 diabetes. A number of factors (e.g., the type of grain, the preparation method, and what other foods are consumed with them) will determine how appropriate grains are for a type 2 diabetes-friendly diet. Here’s what we mean.
What are grains?
Before we go any further, we must be on the same page regarding what grains are in the first place.
Grains such as wheat, rice, oats, and corn are nothing more than dry seeds from plants known as cereals. In their whole form, grains consist of three components: the bran, endosperm, and germ.
Each of these components offers its own unique bundle of nutrients. The bran is the outer layer of the grain and is rich in fiber along with micronutrients and phytochemicals. Underneath the bran is the endosperm — the largest component of the grain consisting primarily of starchy carbohydrates, a bit of protein, and a small number of vitamins and minerals. Finally, in the core of the grain lies the germ, which is rich in healthy fats, micronutrients, phytochemicals, and antioxidants.
There are two forms of grains: whole and refined. As you may guess from the name, whole grains have not been refined, meaning their nutrients are still intact. Refining strips grains of the bran, the germ, and many nutrients — making them less nutritious than whole grains.
One distinction to be aware of: you may come across the term “multigrain” in the supermarket, but be careful. All this means is that multiple grains have been added to the product, not necessarily that the grains are in their whole form. So read ingredient labels carefully to know whether the foods you consume contain whole or refined grains.
Do grains raise blood sugar levels?
The simple answer: yes. But that’s because all foods with carbohydrates raise blood sugar — a normal physiological process. So when it comes to these carbohydrate-containing foods, we want to focus on how quickly and how high they raise blood sugar. To do this, we can use the glycemic index (GI).
The glycemic index is a system that assigns a number, on a scale of 1 to 100, to a carbohydrate-containing food based on how quickly the food affects blood sugar levels. Foods with higher GI scores rapidly release glucose — leading to dramatic blood sugar spikes. Lower-scoring foods release glucose in a slower, steadier manner. The GI index is categorized as the following:
- Low GI: 55 or less
- Medium GI: 56 to 69
- High GI: 70 to 100
Whole grains tend to have low to medium GI levels. Cooked quinoa, for example, has a GI of 50-54 — thus making it a food with a low GI.
Is it possible to eat grains without spiking your blood sugar levels?
While all foods naturally raise blood sugar levels to some extent, the issue lies when the body cannot remove sugar from the bloodstream — as is the case with type 2 diabetes.
Here at Reversing T2D, our approach teaches people how to reverse their insulin resistance — the root cause of type 2 diabetes. After our program members achieve reversal, whole, plant-based foods such as whole grains no longer cause dramatic blood sugar spikes! To learn more about our approach to reversing type 2 diabetes, register for our free Blood Sugar Transformation Week by clicking here.
If you haven’t yet reversed your insulin resistance, this doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy whole grains. There are strategies that you can take advantage of to minimize blood sugar spikes. For example, pairing whole grains with other sources of fiber (like vegetables), plant-based protein, or nuts and seeds can help manage blood sugar as you work towards achieving insulin resistance. For more guidance on this matter, check out our post titled How to Manage Blood Sugar Spikes.
Are grains good for those with type 2 diabetes?
Grains are great for those with type 2 diabetes — but the type of grain matters. Whole grains are a much better option than refined grains for blood sugar management and overall health promotion.
Among the nutrients in whole grains, one plays a vital role in blood sugar management: fiber. Fiber is a type of carbohydrate that our bodies cannot digest or absorb but still offers several health benefits. There are two types of fiber: soluble and insoluble.
As the name suggests, our bodies can dissolve soluble fiber and turn it into a gel-like consistency — which helps slow digestion and absorption. A decrease in absorption rate means a less dramatic spike in blood sugar — thus aiding in blood sugar management.
Soluble fiber also plays a key role in nourishing our gut microbiome. Once it reaches our large intestine, fiber is broken down by the good bacteria in our gut — helping to keep our microbiome flourishing. Healthy gut bacteria are important for many things, including weight management and insulin regulation. To learn more about the role of fiber and the gut microbiome in diabetes, check out our post titled “How Diet Impacts the Gut Microbiome and Type 2 Diabetes.”
On the other hand, our bodies cannot dissolve insoluble fiber. Rather, this type of fiber remains intact as it travels throughout the gastrointestinal tract, acting as a “broom” that helps “sweep” the gastrointestinal contents along, thus aiding in bowel regularity.
Insoluble fiber has also been shown to help increase insulin sensitivity. One study found that an increase in the consumption of insoluble fiber for only three days resulted in improved whole-body insulin sensitivity . Since insulin resistance is the root cause of type 2 diabetes, this is promising news for those with the condition.
A final notable benefit of fiber: it makes us feel full — a plus for weight management.
Both types of fiber can be found in varying amounts in whole grains, making them a great food choice for those with type 2 diabetes.
When consuming carbohydrate-rich foods such as grains, remember to balance your plate by incorporating foods rich in other macro- and micronutrients. For more guidance on creating balanced, plant-based dishes, check out our post titled Using Plant-Based Foods to Reverse Type 2 Diabetes.
Whole grains offer many benefits for those with type 2 diabetes looking to take control of their blood sugar levels. Compared to refined grains, their fiber content and all-around nutrient profile are far more preferential for blood sugar management and overall well-being.
If you want to incorporate more whole grains into your diet, check out our post titled "Which Grains Are Good for Those With Type 2 Diabetes?" for some great options to consider!