You’ve probably heard about the benefits of oats and oatmeal before. Oatmeal is often promoted as a weight loss food, one that decreases your risk of heart disease. Yet, the classic breakfast is also high in carbs, which begs the question – is oatmeal good for you?
To start off with, we need to talk about oatmeal itself. The term is slightly confusing, as it can be used in different ways. In the US, oatmeal often refers to an oat porridge that is made using oats and some type of liquid.
Oatmeal can also refer to oats that have been turned into a type of flour. This type of flour can be used in many ways. For the purposes of this post, we’re focusing on the hot breakfast version of oatmeal. This is the one that most of us are familiar with anyway.
Of course, many of the benefits apply to oat flour too, as both products rely on oats.
Oatmeal has been surprisingly resilient to health food trends. It’s still often eaten, even as many people are concerned about carbs. And honestly, this isn’t so surprising. Oatmeal has plenty of useful features, as you’ll see shortly.
If you have breakfast on the mind, why not see how other countries start their day? The breakfast foods of the Middle East, Thailand, and Russia are quite different than our own and are no less delicious.
Is Oatmeal Good For Your Health?
- The Benefits of Oatmeal
- Why Oatmeal Is Sometimes Avoided
- What About Instant Oatmeal?
- Gluten And Oats
- How Do You Get The Most Benefits From Oatmeal?
- Final Thoughts
The Benefits Of Oatmeal
Let's start with the good things about oatmeal. There are many of them and you've probably heard some before.
Stabilizes Blood Sugar Levels
Because oatmeal is high in carbs, you’d expect it to lead to a blood sugar spike and crash. That doesn’t happen in practice. Instead, the soluble fiber in oatmeal helps to moderate the release of sugar into your bloodstream.
The stabilizing effect is influenced by the type of oatmeal that you choose. Steel-cut oats are the best option here, as they take longer to digest than other types.
This effect means that oatmeal has a low glycemic index. This is perfect first thing in the morning, as it helps to keep you full for longer. Having an oatmeal breakfast often keeps you going for hours while stopping you from craving sweet foods.
In contrast, a toast-focused breakfast won’t keep you full for long. Your blood sugar will often spike and then crash a few hours later, which just makes your work day more difficult.
It’s Been Linked To Health Benefits
Studies suggest that oatmeal may improve your health in a variety of ways.
One effect is on your cholesterol. The soluble fiber in oatmeal plays an important role in reducing cholesterol levels, which may then decrease heart disease risk.
Oatmeal also contains a type of soluble fiber called β-glucan. This is an unusual type of fiber that has been linked to extra benefits. It may even boost your immune system, which improves how your body responds to diseases and infections.
It’s A Whole Grain
When we talk about whole grains, it’s easy to focus on brown rice and wholegrain bread, along with pseudograins like quinoa. However, oats are a type of whole grain as well, one that can be easier to eat regularly.
Diets rich in whole grains have been linked to many benefits. Just look at the Mediterranean diet. It’s well-known for decreasing disease risk and helping people to live longer. Whole grains are a key part of this way of eating.
The effect is partly because whole grains are a rich source of fiber. That fiber is important for countless functions, including keeping you regular. High fiber diets can help to protect you from colon cancer too, perhaps because the fiber helps to keep things moving along nicely.
Don’t forget that oats are a whole food. If you buy them as-is, rather than focusing on instant oatmeal, then you’re getting an unprocessed ingredient that’s easy to work with.
It Can Help With Weight Loss
Oatmeal has been linked to weight loss benefits too. The low glycemic index is one reason for this, as you’re satisfied for longer, which makes it easier to avoid snacking.
The β-glucan that we mentioned earlier is relevant here as well, as it helps to decrease hunger.
Decreasing hunger isn't the only reason that oatmeal helps with weight loss. It's also a low fat meal that's fairly low in calories. Finding a low calorie meal that's also filling is the holy grail for dieters, so it's not surprising that oatmeal has stayed popular for so long.
There Are Antioxidants
Oatmeal doesn’t often make it onto lists of antioxidant-rich foods and doesn't have the same antioxidant density as many of the key players. Despite this, oatmeal does contain antioxidants. The most notable is a type called avenanthramides. These are specific to oats and are rarely found elsewhere.
Avenanthramides have been linked to decreased inflammation and increased nitric oxide production. Both effects are desirable.
Besides, there are many types of antioxidants. Having a wide variety of these in your diet is one of the best ways to promote your health.
Oatmeal Offers Plenty Of Nutrients
Oatmeal might not be as nutrient dense as spinach or kale, but it has its share of vitamins and minerals. Magnesium, iron, and zinc all feature and they’re essential for your health. The iron is particularly important for women, as it’s easy to be deficient in this mineral.
There’s a decent amount of protein in oatmeal too, roughly 5 grams in each half cup serving. The protein is another reason that oatmeal is so satisfying. It’s important for muscle development too.
It’s A Comfort Food
Oatmeal is also a comforting food, especially when the weather’s cold. It’s one of the few foods that is comforting and healthy – as long as you keep an eye on the toppings.
Don’t forget that oatmeal is versatile too. You can include a litany of different toppings, including sweet or savory ones. You could even mix spices in to create a more interesting flavor profile.
You can change up the liquid that you use with it too. Instead of using cow’s milk, why not use a plant-based milk? Water can be a viable choice too, especially if you’re trying to keep your calorie intake in check.
Why Oatmeal Is Sometimes Avoided
As you’ve just seen, oatmeal has an extensive list of benefits. It’s easy to see why the meal is touted as a healthy choice. However, there are two sides to every story and not everyone agrees that oatmeal is good for you.
The Carb Content
I’m sure you’ve heard the debate around carbs by now. In an attempt to be healthy and promote weight loss, Western countries promoted a low fat diet. While that approach sounds good in theory, it led to a strong focus on carbs as an energy source and plenty of processed high carb foods.
Many people are attempting to rebalance their diet by cutting back on carbs and increasing fat intake instead. Oatmeal is a problem here because healthy or not, the breakfast food is high in carbs.
Because of this, the benefits of oatmeal are influenced by your overall diet. If you’re trying to limit carbs, are avoiding grains, or are on a keto diet, then you might need to avoid oatmeal entirely.
What You Eat With It
While oatmeal itself is healthy, what we serve with it often isn’t. For example, if you’re loading your bowl of oatmeal with sugar and cream, it ends up being a high calorie meal.
The extra sugar can lead to a blood sugar spike too, which decreases some of the benefits of eating oatmeal.
Some people find it tricky to make oatmeal healthy, as the oats don’t taste that amazing on their own. And, a breakfast that doesn’t taste good isn’t that appealing. If you don’t enjoy oatmeal without the sugar and cream, then it might be time to find a different breakfast food.
What About Instant Oatmeal?
Oatmeal itself tends to be healthy. Instant oatmeal, on the other hand, is more controversial.
Instant oats rely on oats that have been partially cooked and then dried. This makes them faster to prepare. Plus, the oats often come in single-portion bags. They’re the perfect choice when you live on your own and are in a hurry.
Despite common belief, the oats in instant oatmeal are just as nutritious as those in regular oatmeal. The problem comes from the added ingredients. Instant oatmeal sachets often contain various extra ingredients for flavoring, along with preservatives and other additives.
As a result, some products end up being packed with sugar and artificial ingredients. You might get as much as 8 grams of sugar in a single serving of instant oatmeal, along with far too much sodium.
There’s another problem too. Instant oatmeal tends to get digested faster than oatmeal made using steel cut oats. This means that sugar will hit your system sooner and the oatmeal won’t stabilize your blood sugar as well.
If you’re going to rely on instant oatmeal, look for the plain varieties instead, ideally ones with few extra ingredients. Don’t forget that you can easily flavor the oats yourself.
Besides, regular oats don’t take that long to prepare anyway. Why not make them instead? This way you don’t need to stress about added ingredients.
Try Overnight Oats
Overnight oats are an interesting alternative if you’re short on time. This is a variation on the idea of oatmeal, where you are soaking the oats in liquid overnight, rather than cooking them. The approach means that you can do most of the work the night before, which means there is little work to do first thing in the morning.
Gluten And Oats
Oats are naturally gluten free, which is helpful as many people are sensitive to gluten. However, if you’re following a gluten free diet, look for oats that have been certified as gluten free.
This is important because oats can easily be contaminated by gluten, either when they’re growing or during processing.
How Do You Get The Most Benefits From Oatmeal?
To make oatmeal a healthy choice, you need to make some wise decisions. The first is the type of oatmeal that you’re using. Instant oatmeal is fine, but only if you choose a product that’s low in sugar and doesn’t rely on additives. Unflavored oatmeal will generally be the best choice.
Think about your toppings too.
Fresh fruit is a fantastic way to make oatmeal taste better. The fruit provides some sweetness, fiber, and antioxidants. This is much more nutritious than adding sugar or syrup.
You can also take the savory route. While this idea isn’t as common, it does work surprisingly well. After all, oats aren’t particularly sweet on their own, so why not add some savory toppings instead of sweet ones?
I’ve seen people make power bowls using ingredients like eggs, chicken breast, and spinach as the toppings. It’s easy to see how this would be a healthy and hearty meal at any time of the day.
There’s no doubt about it, oats are good for you. They offer plenty of nutrients, have been linked to many health benefits, and are easy to use. The biggest problem is their carb content, but this shouldn’t be a problem for most people.
Just be cautious about what you serve with your oats. Loading them up with sugar isn’t going to do you any favors at all. Don’t forget that you can get the benefits of oats in other ways too. Oats are often used in baking or to make protein bars. You can even try baked oatmeal rather than the traditional style. These approaches are all valuable if you find that your bowl of oatmeal is getting boring.