Oatmeal seems so innocent, but it’s actually one of the more polarizing breakfasts. On one hand, it’s gained a reputation as this uninteresting, gluey plain slop sprinkled with raisins. On the other, social media has raised up oatmeal as something drool-worthy, piled high with pretty toppings. (Go search #oatmeal on Instagram right now.)
If you haven’t been on team oatmeal, it’s time to give it another shot. Oatmeal is a healthy breakfast that's packed with complex carbohydrates (including fiber), vitamins, and minerals, and it can be an excellent vehicle for nutritious toppings like nuts, seeds, and fruit, says Seattle-based registered dietitian nutritionist Ginger Hultin, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and owner of Champagne Nutrition.
What’s more, oats are naturally gluten-free, making them a good source of carbs for people with specific dietary needs (such as those with celiac disease), says Hultin. (Some oats can still contain traces of gluten, however, so always check the brand you’re buying.)
Another thing to pay attention to is the type of oats you’re eating. For the most health benefits, opt for steel cut, old-fashioned, or rolled oats instead of instant or quick oats. That’s because the latter are relatively lower in fiber, says Hultin.
Next time you’re planning breakfast and considering oatmeal, keep these seven potential perks in mind.
A bowl of oats can help you consume the recommended amount of fiber per day. According to the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, men under 50 years old should aim for at least 38 grams (g) per day, while women under 50 should eat 25 g or more per day, though most Americans are eating just half of that, points out the International Food Information Council Foundation. With 4 g of fiber per cup, cooked oatmeal covers about 14 percent of the daily value (DV) of this nutrient, making it a good source, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Eating a diet rich in whole grains and other food sources of fiber has been shown to be protective against cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and breast, colon, and rectal cancers, according to a study published in February 2019 in The Lancet.
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A bowl of oats is rich in carbs, so to make your morning meal more balanced, you can add toppings that are packed with protein and healthy fat, says Hultin. Try nuts like walnuts, almonds, or pecans; nut butter like almond or peanut butter; or seeds like chia, hemp, or ground flax. “These add protein, unsaturated fats, and even more fiber,” she says. Fresh fruit is another option — try sliced strawberries, blueberries, or raspberries for additional nutrients and fiber, per the National Institute on Aging.
The fiber in oats is good for your overall health, but it’s particularly important for a well-functioning digestive system, points out the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Not only do oats provide insoluble fiber, which promotes regularity, according to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, but also soluble fiber, according to the Mayo Clinic. Sources of soluble fiber have prebiotic properties, per Oregon State University. “This can help feed the good bacteria living in the gut for a healthier microbiome,” says Hultin.
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Oats pack a particular soluble fiber called beta-glucan, notes a review published in November 2019 inFrontiers in Nutrition. “The soluble fiber in oats has been shown to decrease cholesterol. It acts like a Roto-Rooter to clear out cholesterol that may be building up in arterial walls,” explains Jessica Crandall Snyder, RDN, CEO of Vital RD in Centennial, Colorado. Daily intake of beta-glucan was found to lower LDL (“bad”) cholesterol compared to control groups, according to a review and meta-analysis of 58 trials that was published in October 2016 in the British Journal of Nutrition. An elevated LDL cholesterol level raises your risk of heart disease, notes the American Heart Association (AHA).
Another win for oatmeal’s soluble fiber: It may help reduce visceral fat, the type of fat in your midsection that hugs your organs and raises your risk of heart disease and stroke — even if your body mass index is deemed normal, notes the AHA. According to a study published in September 2016 in the journal Nutrients, which looked at adults who have type 2 diabetes, oats helped reduce blood sugar, blood lipids, and weight better than a control group that ate a healthy diet but no oats. Snyder points to research that looked at a variety of lifestyle factors that lead to a reduction in visceral fat and prevented its accumulation over the years: “They found soluble fiber was one of the biggest things that helped clear out fat stores in this area,” she says.
When you belly up to a bowl in the morning, you’re serving up B vitamins, plus minerals including manganese, iron, magnesium, and zinc, says Hultin. For example, 1 cup of cooked oats has about 2 milligrams (mg) of iron, or 11 percent of your DV. As the NIH points out, iron energizes the body and helps trigger the process of carrying oxygen through your body from your lungs. Oats also provide 1.5 mg of zinc, a nutrient necessary for immune function, according to the NIH, which is 14 percent of your daily need.
Often, you think about fruits and veggies offering disease-fighting antioxidants, but your bowl of oatmeal is brimming with them, too. Hultin points out that oats contain a specific antioxidant called avenanthramides. According to a study published in September 2019 in the International Journal of Molecular Sciences, this oat antioxidant is a promising cancer fighter — though more studies are needed. But did you really need another reason to grab a spoon?