When I was a kid, you couldn’t get me near a bowl of oatmeal. I never wanted to eat a bland heap of mushy paste that tasted like cardboard when all my other favorite foods like delicious eggs, pancakes, and waffles were on the breakfast table.
But now that I’m older (and arguably smarter), I know that filling up on simple, sugary carbs is no way to start your day. Unless you want a mid-morning crash, which I don’t think your boss will appreciate when he finds you napping on your desk.
If there’s one thing I learned at the beginning of my nutritional education journey, it’s that oats are one of the healthiest superfoods on the planet.
And dismissing them as ‘just a breakfast food’ totally downplays how they can work for your body throughout the day.
In fact, personal trainer Jackie Warner says in her book that she keeps packets of oatmeal on her at all times and treats her oatmeal like a daily vitamin, making sure to eat a serving every day, whether that’s in the morning or during a mid-meal snack.
No matter when you choose to eat your oatmeal, there’s one rule I have to enforce: stay away from the sugar-laden instant oatmeal packs and those found at fast food chains! One package of flavored oatmeal will serve up 10 g+ sugar, and one small order of oatmeal at McDonald’s is even worse, coming in at 32 g of sugar!
That’s why it’s important to learn about the right kinds of oats to fuel your body efficiently.
Different Types of Oats
There are so many different types of oats filling the store shelves, it’s hard not to feel overwhelmed and confused about which ones to buy.
Here are the most common varieties you’ll encounter.
Whole Oat Groats
While not as readily available as other types of oats, whole groat oats pack the most protein, coming in at 8 g per quarter cup (dry).
“Groats are the whole oat kernel with the inedible hull removed”. They have a nutty, chewy texture, but you have to cook them the longest. That’s why these guys are the perfect oats for slow cookers.
You can also replace your standard white rice with whole groat oats for stuffings and pilafs – no one said they have to taste like sweet breakfast! Season your groats as savory as you would rice, couscous, or quinoa.
You’ll find groats in the bulk bins of most health food stores and you’ll also find them online.
Steel-Cut Oats / Irish Oats
When you cut up whole oat groats with sharp steel blades, you get steel-cut, or Irish oats. These retain the same nutty flavor of groats, but since they’re smaller, they’re easier to cook and they absorb all of your cooking liquid quickly.
Steel-cut oats remind me of porridge and I like cooking up a big batch of these in my slow cooker overnight. My current favorite is this Pumpkin Pie recipe that doesn’t even call for sugar.
Old Fashioned Rolled Oats
Old fashioned or rolled oats are the most versatile oats of the healthy variety. To make them, the whole groats are steamed and softened and then pressed between rollers to form flakes and dry (rolled, get it?).
Nutritionally, old fashioned oats are nearly identical to steel-cut oats. This is one case where processing doesn’t totally ruin a healthy food!
Because the oats are already partially cooked from the steaming and their flat surface area is much larger to absorb more liquid, they cook quicker than groats and steel-cut.
Cook a serving of these up on the stove, in the microwave (yes you can!), or use them in your favorite overnight oats recipes.
Quick Cooking Oats
These oats go through the same cooking process as the old fashioned or rolled oats except they’re pressed a bit thinner, making them faster to cook, creamier, and less chewy.
Because these guys are so thin, you won’t be feeling full for very long and you won’t have the nutritional benefits of steel-cut or rolled oats.
However, quick cooking oats cook in under 5 minutes on the stove and just 2–3 minutes in the microwave. You can also scoop out your serving in a bowl and pour boiling water over them to let them stand and cook for a few minutes.
Instant oats are pressed super thin, steamed longer, and then dehydrated. This is what makes them cook in an instant. However, they have a tendency to turn into disgusting mush if you’re not careful.
These are typically the most unhealthy oats because instant oats are so often flavored with dangerous amounts of sugar, plus salt and other questionable ingredients. However, if you manage to find them unsweetened and unflavored, they have almost the same health benefits as quick oats.
So now that you know the differences between each type of oat, let’s find out why these little guys are so healthy for you.
1. High in Fiber
Oats are high in both types of fiber, soluble and insoluble fiber, so you get the best of both worlds.
Insoluble fiber moves along our digestive tract, grabbing water from our intestines to add weight to waste material and ease its passing through our system and eventually out of our bodies.
Soluble fiber turns into a gel-like consistency that slows digestion and makes us feel full.
One key soluble fiber special to oats is beta-glucan, which slows down the food we eat so it takes our bodies longer to digest it. This means we feel fuller longer.
One serving of oatmeal has around 5 g of fiber. Adults should be getting 25–38 g of fiber daily so this is a nice little boost. Check out these other delicious high fiber foods that will keep you satisfied and healthy.
2. Lowers Cholesterol
Fiber’s not only crucial for a healthy digestive system, it’s also directly linked to heart health.
Beta-glucans are indigestible so they have to go through the entire digestive tract. Along the way, they bind to LDL, or ‘bad’ cholesterol and eliminate it from our bodies, lowering bad cholesterol numbers.
“Five to 10 grams or more of soluble fiber a day decreases your total and LDL cholesterol”.
The FDA “recognizes beta-glucan as a food component that may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease” because the beta-glucan in oats is “associated with a 5 percent reduction in total cholesterol and a 7 percent reduction in LDL cholesterol”.
When your LDL cholesterol is high, your arteries start to harden, which leads to high blood pressure or hypertension. This added strain on your heart may put you at risk for a heart attack.
Lowering your LDL reduces the chances of you suffering from heart disease and having better heart health.
3. Super Heart Healthy
Researchers from one study at Harvard studied 21,000 participants over 19 years. They discovered that men who ate a daily bowl of whole grain, such as oatmeal in the morning, had a “29 percent lower risk of heart failure”.
Maybe that’s because oats are “full of omega-3 fatty acids, folate” potassium, and calcium – all heart-loving essential fatty acids, vitamins, and minerals.
Getting at least 3 grams of oat beta-glucan per day may lower the risk of heart disease.
4. Great for Preventing and Treating Diabetes
Because oatmeal’s a good complex carb, it’s able to slow down the digestion of sugar.
The beta-glucans make sure sugar’s not absorbed too quickly by the body. This reduces blood sugar spikes and keeps your blood sugar levels stable.
According to one study, the fiber in oats helped to improve the metabolism of glucose. It also responded better to insulin than fiber from barley. Both of these are good news for anyone looking to reduce their risk of diabetes and obesity.
The results from another study proved that when participants with type 2 diabetes ate oatmeal for four weeks, they reduced the amount of insulin needed to stabilize their blood sugar levels by 40%.
Luckily all of these awesome diets for diabetes sufferers allow oatmeal on the menu.
5. Helps With Weight Loss
Half a cup of oatmeal is under 150 calories and has just 2 g of fat.
That’s surprising when you realize how full you get for so few calories.
Because there’s so much fiber in oats, they actually promote the feeling of having a full belly. When we feel full, our satiety hormones trigger and we don’t have the constant urge to snack and overeat.
For example, one study linked increased beta-glucans from oats with an increase in peptide YY, a hormone that makes you feel full and satisfied.
If you’re trying to lose weight and restrict your calories a bit, oatmeal is the perfect snack to help get you through those times of hunger. It will quell your hunger pangs and keep you satisfied until your next meal, a win-win superfood to turbocharge your weight loss.
Oats will also help eliminate your belly fat and love handles.
One serving of oatmeal has around 5 g of protein, which makes it pretty protein rich for the amount of calories you’re consuming.
But what’s even better is that you can use low-calorie oatmeal as a healthy base for other protein options.
Here’s one of my favorite tricks: season your oatmeal on the savory side and add a bit of cheese, black beans, salsa, and a poached egg for a healthy, more filling take on huevos rancheros. This oatmeal hack packs over 10 g of protein!
7. Immune Boosting
That super hardworking beta-glucan has also been studied for its ability to help neutrophils, “the soldiers of [our] immune system”, navigate to the infected site quickly and destroy germs.
According to one review, beta-glucans have been shown to:
“Improve the body’s immune system defense against foreign invaders by enhancing the ability of macrophages, neutrophils, and natural killer cells to respond to and fight a wide range of challenges such as bacteria, viruses, fungi, and parasites”.
This is certainly one way good nutrition stops you from getting sick.
8. Prevents Cancer
Oatmeal contains enterolactone, a lignan with phytochemical properties that behaves like an antioxidant and helps prevent and fight cancer.
Antioxidants neutralize the free radicals caused by our environment that damage DNA cells and may lead to cancer.
“Oats contain a higher level of antioxidants than most other grains, making oatmeal an ideal choice”.
There have been several studies linking the high fiber in oatmeal to a healthier colon and reduced risks of colon cancer. One study noted “a 10 percent risk reduction seen in colon cancer for each 10 grams of fiber eaten a day”.
9. Calms and De-stresses
Magnesium is such an important mineral that many Americans sometimes overlook.
Men should get 400–420 mg of magnesium per day; women should aim for 310–320 mg. However, most Americans only get an average intake “around 250 mg daily”.
- Prevent cardiovascular disease
- Reverse osteoporosis
- Regulate high blood pressure
- Treat diabetes
While these are all fantastic abilities, we also know that food affects our emotions.
Magnesium’s been dubbed “the original chill pill” because of its ability to de-stress, promote feelings of calmness, and reduce anxiety and panic attacks.
Magnesium suppresses the hippocampus from releasing stress hormones. It can also prevent stress hormones from entering the brain.
It also kicks insomnia’s butt so you fall asleep faster and stay asleep longer. Try having oatmeal as an after dinner snack, there’s 57.6 mg of magnesium in 1 cup of cooked oatmeal, just don’t add any fruit or sugar so you’re not unintentionally keeping your body up.
10. Banishes Skin Woes
Ever notice why so many soaps, body washes, and bubble baths have oatmeal listed in their ingredients?
It’s because oatmeal’s been used to soothe and relieve dry, itchy skin by normalizing its pH levels.
If you’re suffering from skin conditions, oatmeal baths are a lifesaver. The oatmeal softens and moisturizes your skin while also protecting your sensitive skin from pollutants and irritants.
On top of that, “nutrients in oatmeal like copper, zinc, selenium, thiamin, and niacin contribute to support skin health”.
Oh how you’ll glow from the inside out!
11. Energy Booster
Oatmeal is both a slow-digesting carb and a protein-rich source of energy for your body. Oatmeal’s full of good carbs that keep your body feeling energized and alert.
The sugars in the oatmeal digest and release slower than a simple carb such as processed, sugary cereal, so your energy level remains consistent and spike (or crash!) free.
According to one study, consuming a low glycemic meal such as oatmeal three hours before going for a run gives you more endurance.
Overnight oats can be a nutritious and genius hack for your busy mornings. Prepare your oats this way to eliminate the excuse of not having time for a healthy breakfast or pre-workout meal.
Is Oatmeal Gluten-Free?
“Although old-fashioned oats are naturally gluten-free, they can be contaminated by products containing gluten during packaging, processing, or harvesting”.
Speak to your doctor about adding oats to your diet; only add them to your diet under your doctor’s supervision.
After all, if you can get in on all the amazing health benefits of oats, your body will be sure to thank you.
Notes on Preparation
Keep in mind that oatmeal works in a 1:2 ratio, meaning if you make a serving size (1/2 cup), you only need 1/4 cup dry oatmeal to 1/2 cup water or milk to get there.
So when you read the nutrition labels on your oatmeal, you might notice more protein and fiber in a dry serving of the same size as your wet serving, but remember that dry serving is actually double your cooked serving.
You can use any liquid you prefer to cook your oats; water, almond milk, hemp protein milk, and dairy milk all make interesting flavor combinations.
Remember not to go crazy with fruit and nuts for your oatmeal toppings; you need to watch the sugar and fat in both of these additions to keep your oatmeal healthy.
Consider adding chia seeds or hemp hearts to boost your oatmeal with extra fiber, omega-3s, and energy-boosting throughout the day.
Oatmeal is an incredibly healthy food for a very inexpensive price tag, proving that you can eat well without breaking the bank.
Are you going to start treating oatmeal like a daily vitamin? What’s your favorite way to eat oats? Share your thoughts with me in the comments!