Is Oatmeal Healthy? Here’s What a Nutritionist Wants You to Know
Plus, healthy ways to incorporate it into your diet.
If you craved oatmeal throughout the past year, you're not alone. Americans have been eating more of this hearty whole grain during the pandemic and, based on what research tells us about the benefits of oatmeal, there are good reasons to continue that trend. Oatmeal is comforting and delicious, but it's also incredibly good for you; and it's more versatile than you might think. Here are five reasons to make oatmeal a staple of your diet, as well as healthy ways to incorporate it—even beyond breakfast.
Oatmeal is nutrient-rich
A half cup of dry, quick-cooking oats contains about 150 calories, 5 grams of plant protein, 27 grams of carb with 4 grams as filling fiber, and a few grams of fat. Oats are also bundled with a variety of vitamins and minerals, including iron, magnesium, zinc, selenium, B vitamins, and smaller amounts of calcium and potassium. That's an impressive vitamin and mineral package for a relatively low-calorie food, which makes oatmeal a nutrient-dense ingredient.
Oatmeal provides antioxidants
According to a 2018 study published in the journal Food Research International, polyphenol antioxidants found in oats possess antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. At the cell level, polyphenols have been shown to help fend off aging and disease by reducing oxidative stress. (Basically, oxidative stress is an imbalance between the production of cell-damaging free radicals and the body's ability to counter their unwanted effects.) Due to their bodyguard-like effects, polyphenols have been linked to protection against heart disease and stroke, as well as type 2 diabetes and obesity.
Oatmeal supports weight control
If you've avoided oatmeal due its carb content, you may be delighted to know that this healthy starch actually supports weight management. Research shows that regular oatmeal consumers have lower body weights, smaller waist circumferences, and lower body mass indexes. They also score higher on the Healthy Eating Index, a measure of overall diet quality.
Oatmeal's status as a whole grain is one reason it supports healthy weight management and better overall nutrition. That's because, unlike refined grains, which are stripped of their bran and germ, whole grains remain intact, meaning they retain both fiber and key nutrients.
Satiety, the feeling of fullness that persists after eating, is another boon for weight control—and oatmeal can have a positive effect on the feeling, according to a small study published in the journal Appetite. The researchers compared people's hunger and fullness levels after having eaten either oatmeal or, another breakfast item, oranges. The result: Not only did those who ate oatmeal have greater satiety, but they were also less likely to snack in the hours after breakfast.
Oatmeal's beta-glucan fiber is health-protective
A half cup of oatmeal provides about 14% of the daily value for fiber, but the type of fiber found in oatmeal is uniquely protective. Oatmeal contains beta-glucan, a fiber that's been shown to not only support healthy immune function, but also reduce cholesterol and blood sugar concentrations. For these reasons, regular oatmeal consumption may help lower the risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
Beta-glucan acts as an antioxidant too. In this role, it's linked to fending off hardening of the arteries, as well as neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer's disease. Beta-glucan also helps maintain proper digestive function, prevents inflammation in the gut, and acts as a prebiotic. Prebiotics essentially feed protective microbes in the gut, and inhibit the growth of bad bacteria.
In regards to blood sugar regulation, a 2020 report published in the Canadian Journal of Diabetes looked at the use of oatmeal as a short-term intervention in patients with type 2 diabetes. Oatmeal consumption resulted in a significant reduction in blood sugar levels and improved insulin sensitivity. Researchers say the effect is due in part to beta-glucan and concluded that oatmeal can be used to both prevent and manage diabetes.
Oatmeal may help you live longer
A 2019 meta-analysis published in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology found that oatmeal consumption may lower the risk of all causes of death, including heart disease, the nation's leading killer. The researchers reviewed 33 studies previously published studies to determine the relationship that specific foods had with either overall mortality or cardiovascular disease. They found that whole grain consumption, including eating oatmeal for breakfast, was linked to a lower risk of death from all causes, including heart disease.
All unsweetened oatmeals are good choices
I'm often asked if steel cut oats are better than other types of oatmeal. Steel cut oats, sometimes called Irish oatmeal, are groats, or oat kernels, that have been cut into two or three pieces using a sharp, steel blade. This type of oatmeal is more dense and takes a bit longer to cook. As for the other types of unsweetened oatmeal: Scottish oatmeal is a coarse, stone-ground variety; and old-fashioned rolled oats are groats that have been steamed and then rolled into flakes. Quick or instant rolled oats are even thinner flakes, and instant oatmeal is a finely chopped version of rolled oats.
While steel cut oats are technically less processed, each variety consists of whole oats. And according to the US Department of Agriculture, the nutrition facts for 40 grams (a quarter cup) of steel cut oats are nearly the same as 40 grams (a half cup) of old-fashioned rolled oats. In other words, you get similar benefits from any type you choose, as long as it's unsweetened. Buying unsweetened oatmeal also allows you to choose the type and amount of sweetener you add, if any.
Healthy ways to eat oatmeal
If you start your day with a warm bowl of oatmeal, spruce it up with healthy add-ins. Season your oatmeal with a touch of maple syrup, along with anti-inflammatory cinnamon or ginger and fresh fruit. Add nuts, seeds, or nut/seed butter for healthful fat and bonus plant protein. You can even stir in finely chopped or shredded veggies. Zucchini oats, often referred to as 'zoats,' is one of my favorite breakfast trends. Just shred raw zucchini using a box grater, and fold it right in. And if you need to further boost the meal's protein content, combine plant protein powder with the dry, old-fashioned rolled oats before you add hot water. For overnight oats, refrigerate your favorite combination while you sleep, and enjoy chilled.
Oatmeal also works well with savory ingredients. Cook it plain, and then top with sautéed or oven-roasted veggies and herbs, along with an egg, beans, lentils, or tofu for protein, and sliced avocado or a drizzle of pesto for healthy fat.
Old-fashioned rolled oats can also be used as an ingredient in a number of dishes. I love to combine them with almond butter and cinnamon as a crumble-like topping for warmed up fruit. Rolled oats or oat flour are also great for energy balls, pancakes, and baked goods, including cookies, bars, banana bread, and muffins. More savory ways to use rolled oats include in veggie burger patties and as a substitute for breadcrumbs in anything from meatballs (or meatless balls) to casseroles. With all the tasty ways to enjoy oats, it's easy to take advantage of the benefits of this good-for-you carb.
Cynthia Sass, MPH, RD, is Health's contributing nutrition editor, a New York Times best-selling author, and a private practice performance nutritionist who has consulted for five professional sports teams.
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