The Many Benefits of Oatmeal
Oatmeal is one of those love or hate foods. I didn’t realize this until I became a dietitian. As you can imagine, I frequently make meal recommendations. Breakfast is the main meal that my patients ask recommendations for. Due to the health benefits of oatmeal, it is always at the top of my list. The two most common responses that I receive are “Oh, I love oatmeal. Yes, that’s something that I could definitely eat for breakfast.” Or “Ughh, I hate oatmeal. It’s so bland and the texture makes me gag.”
I really think that what makes oatmeal delicious or disgusting comes down to three things:
- the type of oatmeal,
- the way that is prepared
- and what it is paired with.
Before I discuss these keys to success with oatmeal, let’s look deeper into the benefits of oatmeal. If the health benefits of oatmeal were truly understood, I believe that many people would be more inclined to give it another try. It is so much more than the mush made by grandma who promised it was “good for you.” Let’s explore some of the health benefits!
Eat Oatmeal for Heart Health
Have you ever wondered why Cheerios cereal is always touted as being good for your heart? Well, whole grain oats are the first ingredients listed. According to Today’s Dietitian, oats made health history in 1997 when they became the first food with an FDA health claim label. This decision came as a result of research that showed a decrease in total cholesterol and low-density lipoprotein (LDL aka “bad”) cholesterol levels as a result of the consumption of whole oat sources (oats, oat bran, and oat flour). High levels of total cholesterol and LDL are associated with increased risk of cardiovascular disease. Research has also linked consumption of oats with lowering body weight and blood pressure, both of which are risk factors for heart disease. This cholesterol-lowering benefit is due to the soluble fiber. The fiber helps bind cholesterol and eliminate it from the body so that it doesn’t end up in your bloodstream. Today’s Dietitian reports that consuming 5 to 10 g of soluble fiber per day reduces LDL cholesterol levels by approximately 5%. A bowl of oatmeal made from 3/4 cup of dry oats contains 3 g of soluble fiber.
Additionally, studies have also found promising cholesterol-lowering benefits in avenanthramides, phenols (antioxidants) found specifically in oats. Research suggests that these phenols help prevent free radicals from damaging LDL cholesterol when consumed with vitamin C containing foods such as strawberries, kiwis or melon. Another heart healthy benefit of oatmeal is that avenanthramides, found in oats, have anti-inflammatory and antiatherogenic properties. If cholesterol or heart disease is a concern for you, consider swapping your morning waffle or corn flakes for a hearty bowl of oatmeal.
More Fiber Keeps You Feeling Full
Oats have both soluble and insoluble fiber (2 g of each in ½ dry serving of Quaker Oats). Fiber is beneficial for a variety of reasons.
The most practical reason is that it keeps you fuller longer! The soluble fiber found in oats dissolves in water, expands in your stomach and takes longer to empty than other carbohydrate sources. A common complaint that I hear from patients is that their breakfast leaves them hungry in an hour or so. If something leaves you hungry that quickly, it’s more like a snack than a meal. A balanced breakfast should hold you over for at least 3 hours. A fiber-filled breakfast can be an excellent tool for weight loss because it keeps you satisfied, decreasing chances of snacking.
Some other benefits of oatmeal fiber found is that it helps reduce risk of colon cancer. The BMJ published a study reporting that total fiber intake, as well as fiber from whole grains and from cereals, was strongly associated with a reduction in colon cancer. The insoluble fiber found in oats is what provides specific benefits for colon health. The insoluble fiber adds weight and bulk to the stool, which prevents constipation. This increases the rate at which food and waste are passed through the colon, so they aren’t left to sit and increase the toxic load on your body.
There are really so many benefits of oatmeal and the last one that I’ll talk about in relation to fiber is that it has been found to help with blood sugar regulation. The Mayo Clinic reports that soluble fiber helps improve blood sugar levels by slowing the absorption of sugar to the bloodstream. They also suggest that eating a healthy diet with insoluble fiber may help reduce the risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
Complex Carbohydrates for Prolonged Energy
Oatmeal is an excellent source of complex carbohydrates. Unlike refined/simple carbohydrates, which are quickly digested and can contribute to blood sugar swings, complex carbohydrates take longer to break down. This translates to a steady release of energy to your muscles during workouts. Consider having a bowl of oatmeal an hour or two before your morning run or spin class. If using as a recovery meal, include some protein like an egg, milk or Greek yogurt to boost muscle repair.
Immune System Support
This is due to beta-glucans, naturally occurring polysaccharides found in the cell walls of cereals such as oats in addition to some mushrooms, yeasts, seaweed and algae. I know I said I was done with the benefits of fiber, but beta-glucans are a sub-category of fiber. They’re important enough to get their own section. Studies have found that beta-glucan significantly enhanced the human immune system’s response to bacterial infection. It does this by directing the neutrophils (the most abundant type of non-specific immune cell) to the site of an infection more quickly and boosting their ability to eliminate the infection. This leads to much faster healing. This immune-boosting benefit is being study for it’s potential role in cancer prevention. Yet, another reason to start your day with oats.
There are so many other benefits of oatmeal. I will list just four more:
- They contain the germ, bran and endosperm so they are a whole grain.
- They have been shown to help with weight loss (again due to fiber).
- They’re a naturally gluten-free alternative. If you have celiac disease, make sure to choose “gluten free oats.” Though naturally gluten free, they can become contaminated during processing.
- They have more protein than other grains (5-7g per ½ cup dry). This means you’ll be satisfied longer.
There are so many different types of oats. You could have a different variety for almost every day of the week and reap the benefits of oatmeal!
– Instant Oats: I realize that this is the most convenient option, but it might not be the best choice for those with texture issues. These are pre-cooked and then dried, which means that all you have to do is mix in hot water and you have a meal. No further cooking is required. Due to the pre-cooking, instant oats are more likely to be mushy. If you’re not affecting by texture, this makes for a quick option on your way out the door. Beware of instant packs with added sugar.
– Quick Oats: Quick oats are slightly heartier than instant, but more processed than whole rolled oats or steel cut oats. During processing, rolled oats are chopped into smaller pieces for even faster cooking. Two minutes tops and you’re done.
– Whole Rolled Oats/Old Fashioned Oats: These are my favorite. Rolled oats are made by steaming and rolling oat groats which makes them cook faster. Honestly, they don’t take much longer to prepare than the quick oats. Five minutes and you’re done. The oats are generally more thick and dense than instant, which makes for a more hearty breakfast.
– Steel Cut Oats: Steel-cut oats are oat groats that have been cut into two or three pieces, for a relatively unprocessed product. These usually take longer to cook and work well when made in a slow cooker. That way, you have breakfast for the week.
– Oat groats: These are the least processed and the least familiar of the oat bunch. These are oat kernels with the outer hard husks removed and then toasted. They do take the longest time to cook, so set aside 45 minutes if you’d like to give these a try.
– Oat bran: These are just what their name indicates: the bran of the oat. Because they are just the bran, they don’t qualify as a whole grain, but being just the bran means that they’re higher in fiber. They boast 7g per ½ cup dry serving as compared to approx. 4-5g per ½ cup dry serving of regular oats. These are more like cream of wheat in consistency and are done cooking in a matter of minutes. They also work well added to muffins or quick breads for a fiber boost.
Now for preparation and pairing.
- To avoid mushy oats, cook them for the least amount of time according to the directions. The longer they sit, the softer they become. I like my oats a little bit more dense.
- By themselves, they’re pretty flavorless. I suggest cooking with regular milk or unsweetened vanilla non-dairy milk to a sweeter, richer flavor. I also like to add cinnamon and a splash of vanilla extract. Switch it up with almond extract or your other favorite extract of choice. Nutmeg and cloves also pair very nicely with oatmeal.
- Add fruit! Berries are my favorite. Fruit contains vitamin-C, which works with the antioxidants in oats to boost heart health.
- Add some crunch! Again, oats can be mushy. Exite your palate with some texture variety by adding nuts or seeds (walnuts, almonds, chia seeds, flax seeds, hemp hearts). All of those also provide healthy fats and protein to make it even more satisfying!
Here is one of my favorite recipes for oatmeal that you can make the night before!
Peanut Butter Overnight Oats from minimalistbaker.com
- 1/2 cup (120 ml) unsweetened almond milk
- 3/4 Tbsp (9 g) chia seeds
- 2 Tbsp (32 g) natural salted peanut butter or almond butter (creamy or crunchy)
- 1 Tbsp (15 ml) maple syrup (or sub coconut sugar, organic brown sugar, or stevia to taste)
- 1/2 cup (45 g) gluten free rolled oats
- Sliced banana, strawberries or raspberries
- Flaxseed meal or additional chia seed
- To a mason jar or small bowl add almond milk, chia seeds, peanut butter, and maple syrup (or other sweetener) and stir with a spoon to combine. The peanut butter doesn’t need to be completely mixed with the almond milk (doing so leaves swirls of peanut butter to enjoy the next day).
- Add oats and stir a few more times, then press down with a spoon to ensure all oats have been moistened and are immersed in almond milk.
- Cover securely with a lid or plastic wrap and set in the refrigerator overnight (or for at least 6 hours).
- The next day, open and enjoy as is, or garnish with desired toppings (see options above).
- Overnight oats will keep in the refrigerator for up to 2 days, though best within the first 12-24 hours.
If these preparation methods or suggestions aren’t enough to convert you from an oat hater to an oat lover, don’t throw in the towel yet. Be on the lookout for other ways to incorporate oats into your diet with my coming mini blogs! Oats are incredibly versatile. I’ll find a way for you to reap the benefits of oatmeal one way or another. ☺