Health Benefits of Oatmeal—Explained by a Nutritionist

Plus, healthy ways to incorporate it into your diet.

If you crave oatmeal as comfort food, you're not alone. Per a story from Business Insider, Americans increased their consumption of dry cereals, including oatmeal, during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. And, based on what research tells us about the benefits of oatmeal, there are good reasons to continue this 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.

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Oatmeal Is Nutrient-Rich

Per the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), a half cup of dry, quick-cooking oats, contains about 150 calories, 5 grams of plant protein, 27 grams of carbs, 4 grams of 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. This all 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 cellular 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.)

Furthermore, per a 2017 study published in the journal Oxidative Medicine and Cellular Longevity, 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 to its carb content, you may be delighted to know that this healthy starch actually supports weight management. A 2015 study in the journal Nutrition Research, demonstrated that regular oatmeal consumers have lower body weights, smaller waist circumferences, and lower body mass indexes. They also score higher on the USDA's Healthy Eating Index, which is 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 helpful for weight control—and oatmeal can have a positive effect on this feeling, according to a small study published in 2016 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. A 2019 study from the journal Annals of the National Institute of Hygiene, explained how oatmeal contains beta-glucan, a fiber that's been shown to not only support healthy immune function but also reduce blood levels of cholesterol and blood sugar. For these reasons, regular oatmeal consumption may help lower the risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes.

The article further explains how 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 as a tool 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, a leading cause of death in the United States. In their review, the researchers reviewed 33 previous 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. Oldways Whole Grains Council described multiple different types of oats. They explained that 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 denser 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 oat 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, if you compare the USDA site for steel-cut oats and the USDA site for old-fashioned oats, the nutritional content of a half cup is nearly the same. 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, you can spruce it up with healthy add-ins. For example, you can 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 healthy fat and bonus plant protein.

You can even stir in finely chopped or shredded veggies. Zucchini oats often called 'zoats,' has become a favorite breakfast among many. Just shred raw zucchini using a box grater, and fold it right in.

And if you need to boost the meal's protein content further, 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 can pair nicely with savory ingredients. Cook it plain, and then top with sautéed or oven-roasted veggies and herbs, an egg, beans, lentils, or tofu for protein, and sliced avocado or a drizzle of pesto for healthy fat. 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.

Old-fashioned rolled oats can also be used as an ingredient in several dishes. You can 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.

With all the tasty ways to enjoy oats, it's easy to take advantage of the benefits of this good-for-you carb.

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