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Health Benefits of Oatmeal

Fiber-rich oats are a powerhouse of nutrition

By: Megan Holdaway, RDN

  • Tuesday, February 11, 2020
  • 4 Minute Read   

Oats are a powerhouse of nutrition and an ideal breakfast item.

Oatmeal is a popular breakfast item, but many still wonder if it is healthy to eat. Fortunately, oats are a whole-grain, high-fiber option that can contribute to a feeling of fullness that lasts for many hours. In addition, they contain protein, vitamins and minerals and can be prepared in a variety of ways. 

History of Oatmeal

Oats were first cultivated in 1000 B.C. in central Europe. Ancient Greeks and Romans scoffed at oats as “barbarian” and only fed them to their animals. Later, the Western Roman Empire fell to oat-eating Germanic tribes.

Oats were first brought to America in the early 1600s by European explorers who planted them off the coast of Massachusetts. Scottish and Dutch immigrants used them in traditional porridges, puddings and baked goods. Currently, Vermont has the highest per capita oatmeal consumption in the United States, where it is often consumed with another local favorite: maple syrup.

Fiber-Rich Oats

Fiber describes the portion of plant materials in the diet that humans cannot digest. It is an important component in maintaining gastrointestinal (GI) health by regulating transit time through the GI tract and adding bulk, increasing a feeling of fullness and preventing constipation. Oats contain two types of fiber: soluble and insoluble.

Soluble fiber absorbs water and becomes a viscous gel as it moves through the GI tract and is fermented by bacteria. Insoluble fiber does not absorb water, acts as a bulking agent, and is not fermented by bacteria. Oats have the largest proportion of soluble fiber—in the form of beta-glucan—of any grain. The water-soluble properties of beta-glucan help control blood sugar by slowing down digestion, which can help people with diabetes achieve better glycemic control.

The soluble fiber in oats has been shown to decrease low-density lipoprotein, or “bad” cholesterol, by 10%–15%, particularly when consumed as part of a low-fat diet. Studies show fiber can also decrease risk of high blood pressure and reduce risk of mortality from cardiovascular disease.

A high-fiber diet has also been shown to reduce the risk of colon cancer. The American Heart Association recommends that adults eat 25–30 grams of fiber per day. Most Americans only eat about half that amount.

Just a ½ cup of uncooked, old-fashioned oats a day, prepared in any way, is enough to reap the many health benefits of the fiber it contains. This amount has about 150 calories, 4 grams of fiber (about half soluble and half insoluble) and 6 grams of protein. In addition to fiber, oats are rich in thiamin, magnesium, phosphorus, zinc, manganese, selenium and iron.

Types of Oats

As a general rule, the less oats are processed, the more fiber they contain and the more health benefits can be gained from eating them.

  • Steel-cut oats still contain the whole oat grain, including the oat bran. They are passed through steel cutters, which chop them into pieces.
  • Rolled oats are de-hulled then steamed, which partially cooks the oats; then they are flattened between two rollers. They are sometimes referred to as old-fashioned oats.
  • Instant oats are produced the same way as rolled oats, but they are steamed for a longer period of time to completely cook them before the drying process. Instant oats often have sweeteners or flavors added to them.

Oatmeal Upgrades

Oatmeal is a porridge made from rolled or ground oats. Preparing oatmeal with milk instead of water increases the content of protein, calcium and other essential nutrients. Stirring in some yogurt with live, active cultures will add the health benefits of probiotics.

Adding fresh fruit such as blueberries, strawberries, bananas or apples increases the content of fiber, vitamins, minerals and antioxidant-rich phytochemicals. If no fresh fruit is available, add dried fruit such as raisins or cranberries.

Sprinkling walnuts, pecans, olive oil and sunflower seeds on top adds heart-healthy fats and protein. The added fats will help with feeling full even longer. For added sweetness without the calories, consider adding stevia or another low-calorie sugar substitute.

Krauss RM, Eckel RH, Howard B, et al. AHA Dietary Guidelines: revision 2000: a statement for healthcare professionals from the Nutrition Committee of the American Heart Association. Circulation. 2000;102(18):2284-2299.
Kumar V, Sinha AK, Makkar HPS, de Boeck G, Becker K. Dietary roles of non-starch polysaccharides in human nutrition: a review. Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr. 2012;52(10):899-935.
Otles S, Ozgoz S. Health effects of dietary fiber. Acta Sci Pol Technol Ailment. 2014;13(2):191-192.

Megan Holdaway, RDN

Megan Holdaway, RDN

Megan Holdaway is a registered dietitian nutritionist and the Nutrition Science Program Manager at Dairy Council of California.

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