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 it’s important to eat healthy.
And dismissing them as ‘just a breakfast food’ totally downplays how they can work for your body throughout the day.
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 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 dried (rolled, get it?).
Nutritionally, old fashioned oats are nearly identical to steel-cut oats.
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.
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 mush if you’re not careful.
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.
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. These molecules are associated with a lowering of 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”.
3. Super Heart Healthy
It’s still unclear if eating oats or other whole grains will drastically cut your risk of heart disease as many claim.
That said, it does typically reduce other markers like cholesterol and hypertension, which are known risk factors for 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. Both of these are good news for anyone looking to reduce their risk of diabetes and obesity.
Luckily all of these awesome diets for diabetes sufferers allow oatmeal on the menu.
5. Helps With Weight Loss
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 fora grain.
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!
Nuts will also add protein to your oatmeal and don’t forget about a scoop of whey protein powder if you’re looking to boost your protein intake even more.
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.
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. 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.
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?
Oats themselves are gluten-free, but sometimes the machinery they’re processed on is also used to mill gluten-containing grains.
If you have celiac disease or want to avoid gluten for another reason, there are some certified gluten-free oats available.
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.
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.