5 “Healthy” Breakfast Foods That Are Spiking Your Blood Sugar
Blood sugar awareness has been trending lately, and for good reason: being aware of your blood sugar levels is especially important for anyone who is diabetic or pre-diabetic, but it’s really useful for others, too. “Blood sugar influences almost every bodily process in a domino-like effect,” says Mariam Eid, RD, LD. “One mishap in blood sugar can influence so many downstream processes.”
“Blood sugar is basically like our energy gauge,” says Dawn Jackson Blatner, RDN, CSSD. “When it goes too low we can feel fatigued, irritable, and unmotivated. If it goes too high we can feel erratic, foggy, and scattered. When our blood sugar/energy gauge is steady, we feel focused, productive, engaged, and alert.”
Why we should care about our blood sugar levels
Your blood sugar refers to the concentration of glucose in your blood, which fluctuates throughout the day as your body processes the food it takes in and also responds to other factors such as sleep and stress. Although the whole system is more complex than this, a good rule of thumb to consider is that foods that are high in sugar can cause a blood sugar spike, which is not great for you.
“When your blood sugar spikes, a couple of bad things happen in your body,” explains Mark Thiesmeyer Hook, MS, MPH, RD, ACE-PT. “First, your inflammation factors rise which can increase your joint pain and even cause allergies to kick in. Second, your body pushes fat into fat cells. In short, your body has a clear signal that when blood sugar is around, you should not burn your body fat.”
The effects of a blood sugar spike-then-crash pattern aren’t only short-term, either. “Over time, constant exposure to blood sugar spikes may contribute to aging, fatty liver disease, depression, PCOS, and infertility,” says Eid. “Impaired blood sugar levels may also increase your risk for heart disease, Type 2 Diabetes, Alzheimer’s, and cancer, as well as inflammatory skin conditions, such as acne, eczema, and psoriasis.”
The message is clear: blood sugar is something to take seriously, and keep an eye on whether or not you are diabetic or pre-diabetic. If you feel like you always want a nap after lunch, or if the term “hangry” really resonates with you, you might be especially sensitive to blood sugar’s effects.
So the best way to manage your blood sugar is simply to limit, or not eat processed sugar, right? Well, yes, but that’s not the entire story. Sugar exists in many forms, and occurs naturally in items from every food group. Even foods that have an important place in mindful, nutritive eating can cause your blood sugar to spike. The body breaks down complex carbohydrates into sugars, and produces insulin to help your cells absorb the sugar’s potential energy.
Balance is always key, and foods with a potential to spike your blood sugar can be offset by other foods that are high in fiber or protein. (You can read up on blood sugar management strategies with our Expert-Approved Ways to Avoid a Blood Sugar Spike.)
Meanwhile, armed with those strategies, here are a handful of sneaky breakfast foods that may be spiking your blood sugar — because it’s amazing how easy it is to start your day off on the wrong foot without this knowledge.
1. Non-fat yogurt
Dairy can be an excellent source of protein, and yogurt with live active cultures is also valuable to your gut biome, but milk sugar is still sugar, and dairy varieties without the fat lack the built-in brakes that fat provides to sugar absorption.
“Without the fat, the sugar hits your system particularly fast,” says Thiesmeyer Hook. So remember that it’s not the 90s anymore — fat-free isn’t all it was cracked up to be — and consider opting for a 2% or full-fat yogurt instead, and pair your yogurt with a 1/4 cup of sugar-free granola or spiced nut clusters for added fat and protein.
2. Plant-based milk
Oat milk and other alternative milk have seen a huge rise in popularity over the last decade as many people have started to limit their dairy intakes, but unchecked, plant-based milk and even their yogurt derivatives can have a negative effect on blood sugar.
“Plant milks frequently have added sugars and are low in protein, fiber, and fat, making them a perfect storm for amping up our blood sugar,” says Blatner. “There is also a surprising amount of sugar added to plant-based yogurt, too — even the plain variety.”
This is a simple case of needing to read the labels to make sure you’re choosing no-sugar-added varieties that carry a comparable amount of protein to dairy milk. You can also enjoy it as part of a cup of overnight oats made with chia seeds and chopped pecans, which offer carbs and protein that will help keep your blood sugar more stable.
3. Fruit juice
The phrase “fruits and vegetables” can seem like a slogan for healthy eating unto itself, but all fruit contains fructose, a form of sugar that your body responds to as it would any form of sugar.
“Fruits are one of the most surprising types of food that may spike blood sugar levels,” says Eid. “However, fruits are rich in nutrients and antioxidants, and beneficial for overall health,” she says, which means they’re absolutely worth incorporating into your diet — especially when paired with fiber, fat, and protein.
Fruit juices, on the other hand, are extremely problematic to blood sugar. “Fruit juice has an aura of health, but it’s pure sugar with some vitamins,” says Thiesmeyer Hook.
“When fruits are processed down to fruit juices, a majority of their nutrients, including the fiber, are stripped, so only the sugars remain,” says Eid. “These sugars act similarly to regular table sugar in the blood.”
Instead of juicing, consider making a smoothie, which uses the whole fruit. (Check out this delicious blueberry-spinach smoothie recipe, which includes hemp hearts for a solid dose of fat and protein — and we’d consider throwing some almond butter in, too, for more of the same.)
4. Breakfast cereals
Cereals with sugar coatings or marshmallows are obvious sugar bombs you already know to avoid, but even healthy-seeming cereals can spike your blood sugar — especially if they don’t have a decent amount of fiber.
“Breakfast cereals with less than three grams of fiber per serving can be a hidden source of sugar,” says Thiesmeyer Hook. “When you combine them with milk — there are 12 grams of sugar in 8 ounces of skim milk — you end up with a big sugar spike.” He recommends instead switching to bran flakes, which are a great source of fiber, with raisins and almonds for additional fiber, and no-sugar-added soy or flax milk for the protein.
5. Whole wheat toast
“Listen, whole grains are way better for blood sugar than the white, refined versions because they have more nutrients and fiber to keep levels more steady,” says Blatner.
However, these products are still laden with the kind of starch that your body treats like sugar. “To get the most steady blood sugar while reaping the benefits of whole grains, have a smaller portion, and round it out with protein and fat,” she says.
So instead of having toast with jam in the morning, consider topping it with a poached egg or a tablespoon of unsweetened peanut butter.