Diet plays a crucial role in the management of both type 1 and type 2 diabetes. A healthy diet is also important for the reversal of prediabetes, which is increasing in prevalence worldwide.
Nutrition is a complex subject. It’s easy to become overwhelmed and confused by the constant stream of information you get from the internet, social media, friends, and healthcare providers.
Carbohydrates get a lot of attention when it comes to diabetes management. Grains are a type of carbohydrate that you might be avoiding for your diabetes.
The good news is that you don’t have to cut out grains to manage your diabetes. In fact, certain types of grains might help improve your health and blood sugars.
Let’s look specifically at barley for diabetes management.
What is barley?
Barley is part of the grass family and is a cereal grain. It has a chewy texture and is known for its mild, nutty taste.
Barley can be whole grain or pearled. Whole grain barley is the healthiest because it only has the outer hull removed. Also called barley groats, whole-grain barley is very high in fiber, with 32 grams per dry cup.
Pearled barley also has the outer hull removed and is polished to remove some or all of the bran. The bran is part of the grain that contains B vitamins, iron, copper, zinc, magnesium, antioxidants, and phytochemicals. Pearled barley is lower in nutrients than hulled barley.
Hulled barley is rich in protein, with 23 grams per cup of dry hulled barley.
One cup of dry barley provides 36% of the daily value for iron. Iron is a mineral that helps build proteins in red blood cells that transport oxygen throughout your body. Without enough iron, anemia can develop, causing fatigue and weakness.
One cup of dry barley provides over 60% of the daily value for magnesium. Magnesium helps promote muscle relaxation.
Taking in adequate amounts of magnesium is associated with improved blood sugar control and insulin sensitivity. On the other hand, low intakes of magnesium link with an increased risk of diabetes.
Barley is a great source of B vitamins like niacin, thiamin, and riboflavin. B vitamins help you utilize the energy you get from food.
Barley can be used just like other grains like rice. They also hold up well in soups and stews and can be used in place of oatmeal as a breakfast porridge.
If you don’t want to eat whole barley, consider trying barley water. Barley water is made by simmering barley in water and then drinking the liquid.
Barley water is considered to have similar benefits as whole barley because the nutrients are extracted during heating, yet there aren’t any studies specifically on the benefits of barley water.
Watch out for ready-made barley water containing added sugar for flavoring since sugary drinks can wreak havoc on your blood sugar levels.
Can barley help manage diabetes?
Fiber is found in plant-based foods such as barley. Plant-based foods are associated with improved health outcomes, including reduced risk of chronic diseases like type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
Barley is a carbohydrate. Carbohydrates are a type of nutrient that turns into glucose when you eat them. That means that barley raises your blood sugar.
However, a large proportion of barley’s carbohydrate content is from the fiber. Fiber isn’t digestible, meaning it won’t raise blood sugar.
Choosing high-fiber carbohydrates is one strategy for helping to manage blood glucose levels in people with diabetes.
Eating barley for diabetes management is a reasonable strategy backed by many research studies – we’ll look at those studies shortly.
How it works
When you eat foods that contain carbohydrates (such as fruits, starchy vegetables, grains, and milk), those foods are broken down into glucose in your blood. If your body doesn’t produce enough insulin or it’s resistant to insulin, your blood glucose levels can rise too much after eating.
Eating high-fiber carbohydrates elicits less blood glucose response because fiber passes through your body unabsorbed. Fiber is beneficial for promoting gut health and bowel regularity. Fiber also acts as a prebiotic, which means it helps feed beneficial bacteria in your digestive tract.
Foods high in fiber take longer to pass through your digestive system compared to carbohydrates low in fiber. That means that eating foods like barley help provide a sense of satiety, keeping you fuller for longer.
The fiber in barley helps slow down the release of glucose into your bloodstream. That means that eating foods like barley might help prevent blood sugar spikes, which is when blood sugar levels rise quickly after eating.
Eating high-fiber foods is one strategy to promote weight loss. Many people with type 2 diabetes (the most common type) are considered overweight or obese. Losing 5-10% of your body weight can help improve blood glucose levels. Because high-fiber foods boost satiety, they might help reduce cravings between meals due to hunger.
Fiber helps reduce the glycemic index of a food. The glycemic index (GI) is a value used to measure how much a food raises blood sugar and is based on a number from 0-100.
Foods are usually described as low (GI of 55 or less), medium (56-69), or high (GI of 70+) glycemic index based on the number. The lower the glycemic index, the more slowly it raises blood sugar levels. Using this scale, pure glucose would have a glycemic index of 100.
A note on net carbohydrates
You’ve probably heard the term net carbohydrates, or “net carbs,” especially if you count carbohydrates. The net carbohydrate amount is the total carbohydrates minus dietary fiber. The resulting “net carbs” is the amount that should be counted because it affects blood sugar.
Fiber is subtracted from total carbohydrates because it doesn’t raise blood sugar since it can’t be digested. Therefore, choosing higher-fiber foods will result in lower net carbohydrate totals, which is one strategy for promoting optimal blood sugar levels.
For example, if you eat a food with 15 grams of total carbohydrates but seven of those are from fiber, then the net carbohydrates equal 8 grams.
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What the studies say
So, what do the studies say about the effects of barley for diabetes?
Improves blood sugar
The primary type of fiber in barley is beta-glucan. Beta-glucan is a soluble fiber, meaning it forms a gel when digested. Soluble fiber helps slow down digestion.
Studies show that consuming beta-glucan fiber helps improve blood sugar levels.
Improves insulin sensitivity
One study compared the blood sugar response in men who ate white bread or barley for breakfast. The group that ate barley had improved insulin sensitivity and lower levels of inflammation.
Reduces insulin resistance
A study on obese women with a high risk of insulin resistance found that eating beta-glucan (the type of fiber in barley) improved post-meal blood sugar levels and insulin responses after eating.
That’s especially important considering many people with insulin resistance have prediabetes, which is a condition where blood sugar levels are slightly elevated. Prediabetes is a strong risk factor for developing type 2 diabetes later on.
Yet another study concluded that long-term intake of barley could help with diabetes control and management.
The researchers in that study compared the effectiveness of barley to the action of biguanides. Biguanides are a class of medications, including metformin, the most popular oral diabetes medication for type 2 diabetes.
Lowers cholesterol and improves digestive function
Another study concluded that high-fiber cereals such as barley helps lower cholesterol levels and improve digestive function. In addition, regularly eating cereals like barley is associated with a lower body mass index (BMI) and a lower risk of being overweight or obese.
Whole-grain and high-fiber cereal grains like barley like to a lower risk of diabetes and heart disease.
Lowers heart disease risk
People with diabetes tend to have abnormal cholesterol levels and are at higher risk of developing heart disease. Eating plant-based, high-fiber foods can help promote healthy cholesterol levels, which is great news if you have diabetes and high cholesterol.
A study on men with high cholesterol found that eating high-fiber foods like barley “significantly reduced” lipid levels and lowered other measures of heart disease risk.
Carrying fat around your abdomen is a risk factor for heart disease. This type of fat is visceral fat, and it’s dangerous because it surrounds vital organs like your heart and lungs.
A study shows that eating beta-glucan in the form of barley helps reduce visceral fat while lowering LDL, or “bad” cholesterol.
Other potential health benefits of barley
As if the numerous health benefits of barley for diabetes aren’t enough, there are other potential health benefits from eating this hearty, high-fiber grain.
1) Improve gut bacteria
The fiber in barley helps feed healthy bacteria in your gut. The colony of healthy bacteria is your microbiome. Stress, illness, and the use of antibiotics can all wreak havoc on your microbiome.
Your gut microbiome not only impacts your digestion, but it plays a role in other aspects of your health, such as your immune system and metabolism.
Some signs of an unbalanced microbiome include skin irritation, food intolerances, unintentional weight changes, fatigue, and the presence of autoimmune disorders.
2) Might help fight acne
Barley is naturally rich in azelaic acid. Azelaic acid is a popular acne treatment and helps fight bacteria, fights the formation of pimples, and reduces inflammation.
3) Promotes sleep
Barley grass is rich in sleep-promoting nutrients like magnesium, GABA, and calcium.
Barley is a type of grain. Like other grains, there are whole grain and refined options. Whole grain barley (hulled barley) is ideal for diabetes because it’s richer in fiber and nutrients compared to pearl barley (refined barley).
Barley is a carbohydrate, but it’s very high in fiber. Fiber is beneficial for your blood sugar because it slows the release of glucose into your bloodstream. Even though fiber is a type of carbohydrate, your body doesn’t absorb it, so it doesn’t raise your blood sugar.
There are numerous studies on the benefits of barley for diabetes management. Studies have found that barley can help improve blood sugar levels, reduce diabetes risk, promote weight loss, improve insulin sensitivity, improve cholesterol levels, promote gut health, and more.