Is Oatmeal Really That Good For You? Here's What Dietitians Say
If you love spooning into a warm bowl of oatmeal, making a cold jar of chocolate peanut butter overnight oats, or meal prepping a batch of baked oatmeal, there are so many reasons to keep doing what you're doing. You might even consider stepping up just how often you're adding oats to your meals and snacks. And if what's technically edible seeds of oat grass aren't really up your alley, you might want to rethink your relationship with oats. That's because the health benefits of the cereal grain, formally named Avena sativa, are about as numerous as the ways you can prepare it. From offering up lots of soluble fiber to a wide variety of vitamins, oats truly don't get the credit they deserve as a superfood.
"Oatmeal is high in protein, fiber, and several important vitamins and minerals, including B vitamins and iron," says Katie Thomson, RDN, cofounder and CEO of Square Baby, an organic baby food company. "The high fiber content can help regulate blood-sugar levels and promote feelings of fullness. It's also a good source of antioxidants, which have been shown to have anti-inflammatory effects in the body."
And that's just the beginning. Here, the whole scoop on the nutritional and health benefits of oatmeal.
Oatmeal Nutrition Facts
Thomson points out that there are a variety of types of oatmeal, each with its own qualities, including texture, flavor, and cooking time. "It's important to choose the right type of oatmeal for your cooking, baking, or personal needs," she notes.
What's more, not all oatmeal offers the same health benefits. The processing and texture of each type of oatmeal will make a difference in how quickly you digest it, how much it will cause your blood sugar to fluctuate, and how soon after eating you'll be hungry, notes Tanya Mezher, RD, CDN, and lead functional practitioner at Malla, a functional medicine company.
Here are the various types of oatmeal and their nutrition facts, according to Mezher. Just note that they may vary slightly depending on exactly which product you buy.
Steel-Cut Oats (aka Irish Oatmeal or Groats)
"These are the whole oat groats (common name for the grain kernel) cut into coarse pieces by a sharp metal blade," Mezher explains. "Groats are typically more 'al dente' in texture when cooked than the following types, having a chewier texture and nutty flavor."
Steel-cut oats are also minimally processed, so they are the highest in fiber content, take the longest to cook, and have the most health benefits.
Nutrition facts for steel-cut oats (1/4 cup dry): 150 calories, 5 g protein, 27 g carbohydrates, 4 g fiber, 2.5 g fat, 0 g sugar.
The name comes from the way these oats were traditionally processed by the Scots: by stone-grinding them instead of using a steel blade, Mezher notes. "This results in broken bits of various sizes, creating a creamier porridge-like texture when cooked," she notes.
Nutrition facts for steel-cut oats (1/4 cup dry): 150 calories, 5 g protein, 27 g carbohydrates, 5 g fiber, 2.5 g fat, 0 g sugar
Rolled Oats or Old-Fashioned Oats
"Also known as old-fashioned oats, rolled oats are made by steaming and flattening whole oat groats into flakes," Mezher says. "This process stabilizes the oats so they stay fresher longer. They cook faster than steel-cut oats due to the greater surface area and have a softer, creamier texture when cooked."
Nutrition facts for rolled oats (1/4 cup dry): 150 calories, 5 g protein, 27 g carbohydrates, 4 g fiber, 2.5 g fat, 1 g sugar
Quick or Instant Oats
If you ate oatmeal as a kid and it came in packets, this is probably the type of oatmeal you ate. "Quick oats are similar to rolled oats, but they're rolled into thinner flakes and processed to cook more quickly," Mezher explains. "These are the most processed type of oatmeal. They cook the fastest and have the softest, creamiest texture. Keep in mind, some brands and types of instant oats (namely, those that are flavored) will come with extra added sugar and have different nutrition facts than plain quick oats.
Nutrition facts for quick oats (1/4 cup dry): 150 calories, 5 g protein, 27 g carbohydrates, 3 g fiber, 3 g fat, 1 g sugar.
Health Benefits of Oatmeal
From a specific kind of soluble fiber to antioxidants, here are the health benefits of oatmeal you can expect to enjoy when you add this grain to your menu rotation.
Increased satiety, and lower cholesterol.
Oatmeal boasts a really high amount of soluble fiber, particularly beta-glucan. "It is a viscous polysaccharide that contributes to the gel-like texture when oatmeal is cooked," Mezher explains. Research shows this soluble fiber slow digestions, which aids in the absorption of nutrients while increasing satiety, she says.
At the same time, beta-glucan can bind with cholesterol in the digestive system and excrete it in the stool, preventing it from being absorbed into the bloodstream; that can result in raising your HDL (good) levels of cholesterol and lowering your LDL (bad) cholesterol levels, per research. This is where oatmeal gets its reputation for being "heart healthy," Mezher points out.
Better blood-sugar balance.
Not only does soluble fiber help slow down digestion to boost satiety, but research also shows that eating minimally processed oats is associated with a more stabilized blood-sugar response than other sources of carbohydrates like white bread or white rice. And more dramatic blood-sugar spikes can lead to cravings and overeating, per Harvard Health Publishing.
Just bear in mind that the more processed grains are, the more dramatically your blood sugar will respond. "So for diabetes and blood-sugar regulation, it's better to have steel-cut versus instant oats," Mezher notes. Better yet, add protein, fiber, and healthy fats (like berries and nut butter) to your oatmeal, she says.
Bolstered gut health.
The soluble fiber in oatmeal will not only keep constipation at bay but also promote a healthy diverse gut microbiome, Mezher says. "The breakdown and fermentation of beta-glucan oat fibers and production of short-chain fatty acids contributes to the health and function of the entire digestive system and the gut microbiome," she explains. In turn, this contributes to the health and function of just about everything else in your body, including brain and immune function, she says.
Lower cancer risk.
The antioxidants in oats are called avenanthramides, which researchers have associated with a reduced risk of cancer. "These effects were observed against skin-cancer cells, lung cancer, and colon carcinoma, amongst others," Mezher points out.
What to Know About Potential Risks of Oats
Even nutritious, healthful foods like oatmeal can come with drawbacks, especially when consumed regularly in large quantities, Mezher notes. "For example, oatmeal is generally carbohydrate forward on its own and often found in instant or premade forms loaded with added sugars, artificial flavors, and ingredients," she says.
To that end, she recommends checking ingredient lists and nutrition-fact labels when shopping. Also, try to stick to the plain form of oatmeal you like best (rather than flavored varieties), then mix in your own add-ins at home.
It may also be worth making an effort to buy organic oats or oatmeal products certified as "glyphosate-free," Mezher says. "Unfortunately, conventional modern farming methods have made it common practice to use glyphosate (herbicide) to kill weeds, contaminating oats and oat products in the process," she explains, adding that exposure to glyphosate has been linked to negative health effects such as cancer and gut issues.
So Is Oatmeal Good For You?
Whether you're looking for a satisfying breakfast that will keep you full until lunch or a superfood snack you can count on for an antioxidant and fiber boost, oatmeal may very well be your best bet. The universally applauded grain certainly offers quite a few health benefits.
Nonetheless, Mezher encourages anyone interested in adding more oatmeal to their diet to take their unique wellness picture into consideration. She recommends working with a healthcare provider or registered dietitian to ensure your oatmeal intake is tailored to your individual health needs and goals.