What is Oatmeal?
Oatmeal is one of those foods we all sort of know is good for us even if we don’t really know why.
It’s generally eaten at breakfast time, and without trying to state the obvious, it’s (or at least should be) just oats added to boiling water and/or milk.
The oats can be prepared in a variety of ways, rolled oats (where the oats have been rolled into flat flakes then steamed and toasted) being the most common, but steel-cut oats (where the whole grain inner portion of the oat kernel is cut into pieces) are also regularly seen, and are sometimes considered to be healthier.
Most of the oats we buy has been at least partially cooked since raw oats could take up to an hour to cook.
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Is Oatmeal Good For You?
Other than the partial cooking, the oats won’t have been artificially processed or stripped of any goodness which means oatmeal remains a whole grain, keeping its germ and bran.
It also contains a number of vitamins and minerals, such as folate, which assists cell production and growth, and thiamine, which supports the functions of muscles and nerves, and helps metabolise carbohydrates.
Oatmeal is also a source of antioxidants, protein, iron, fiber, healthy fats and complex carbohydrates.
The Health Benefits of Oatmeal
Other than its vitamin and mineral content, oatmeal is reported to reduce the risk of a couple of serious health problems: heart disease and type-2 diabetes.
Many studies (1,2) have looked into oatmeal’s effect on cholesterol, and the findings show that eating oatmeal on a daily basis can help reduce bad cholesterol, LDL, while leaving good cholesterol, HDL, unchanged.
It does this by binding to the bad cholesterol and removing it from the system. This has a knock-out effect on the risk of heart disease as it can reduce the risk of clogged arteries.
As a result of these studies’ findings, the American Food and Drug Administration permits oatmeal packaging to state that it can help reduce risk of heart disease.
Reducing bad cholesterol whilst maintaining high levels of good cholesterol also has an effect on the development of type-2 diabetes (3), as many people who develop diabetes show the reverse pattern: low levels of good cholesterol with concurrent high levels of bad cholesterol.
So, whether you are considered ‘at risk’ of developing diabetes or not, daily oatmeal can help prevent or daily its development.
A secondary benefit oatmeal has for individuals with diabetes is its levels of soluble fiber.
Oats contain more soluble fiber than wheat, corn or rice. Soluble fiber slows digestion allowing you to feel full for longer, helping to control your eating.
Slower digestion can also help stabilize blood sugar levels, and prevent a sudden rise after eating, both of which are beneficial to diabetes sufferers. It is the soluble fiber in oatmeal that also helps reduce blood pressure in those that eat it.
Portion Size and Serving Suggestions
The recommended portion size for rolled oats is between ½ – ¾ cups, and less for steel-cut oats. These can be cooked on the stove or in the microwave, or baked in the oven, and it generally takes under 10 minutes.
This is as most oats have been partially cooked before packaging, as said before, raw oats will take up to an hour to cook.
Many people aren’t particularly keen on the taste of oatmeal, and this may prevent them making this healthy breakfast part of their daily routine. Luckily there are plenty of ways to spice up oatmeal, some healthier than others.
Adding fruit is an obvious option, bananas or berries are excellent choices, as are dried fruits and coconut.
Adding chopped nuts is another healthy addition to oatmeal, or try a couple of spoons of granola or dried cereal. For soft or sweet options you could try jam, maple syrup, cinnamon, stevia or yogurt. Remember though that this is supposed to be a healthy meal, don’t undo your good work!
The same goes for those who prefer to add milk to their oatmeal rather than water, try using low fat milk or cook it with water than add a bit of milk at the end for taste.
Is Instant Oatmeal Good For You?
Nowadays plenty of companies sell instant oatmeal, the benefit of it being that it has a cooking time of 1-2 minutes.
But, what are the other differences, and is it still good for you?
Well, instant oatmeal is very similar to rolled oats, only the pieces have been very thinly rolled and cut into small pieces before steaming. The problems with instant oatmeal is that many of the products commercially available contain artificial flavourings and preservatives, as well as salt and sugar.
It may take some detective work to find a variety that’s free of these, look for ‘regular’ flavour oatmeal as a starting point.
Some instant oatmeal varieties may actually have added health benefits when compared to regular oatmeal. For example, oat flour is sometimes added, and this increases protein and fiber levels.
Calcium Carbonate can be added too, giving instant oatmeal a higher calcium content, and sometimes vitamins are also artificially added.
Some people won’t like this sounds of this because it’s not natural, only you can decide what’s best for you, but remember that almost all oats you buy will have been pre-cooked to some level as otherwise the home cooking time becomes ridiculously long.
For me, the main difference is in taste and texture; regular oatmeal is definitely a more satisfying breakfast, and if you don’t have time to prepare it each morning, try cooking a batch one day then covering and storing in the refrigerator, it can last up to four days like this.
Word of Warning
It seems then that eating oatmeal every day can support weight loss by helping stave off hunger.
However, one study (4) found that people eating oatmeal each morning put on weight. Further investigation found that the participants were adding sugar to their oatmeal, eating large portions and having mid-morning snacks on top. Indeed, many people suggest 1 ½ cups of oatmeal as a portion, which is well above what’s recommended.
(1)Jenkins, D. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, February 2005; vol 81:pp 380-87
(2)American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, August 2002; 76(2):351-8
(3)Experimental and Clinical Endocrinology & Diabetes, February 2008; 116(2):132-4
(Photo: nate steiner. via flickr/CC Attribution)