Oats have been around for centuries (the earliest traces were found on a tool dating back 32,000 years). They’ve gained some serious popularity in recent years, thanks to the discovery that this breakfast staple is packed with essential vitamins, minerals, nutrients, and antioxidants.
Once known as that porridge-like concoction your grandmother cooked up when she came to visit, oatmeal has had a trendy makeover in recent years. It’s become the go-to dairy substitute in high-end lattes, and a foodie favorite for boosting the fiber content and flavor of entrees and desserts.
In other words, oatmeal isn’t just for breakfast anymore.
With its ability to lower blood cholesterol levels, ease digestion, and manage appetite, this versatile grain has more than earned its oat-standing status.
Making oatmeal used to be simple: Boil water or milk, stir in oats, and cook for 5 minutes or so. Today, just figuring out which type of oats to buy can make your head spin. Steel-cut, rolled, Scottish, quick-cooking — what’s the difference?
- Steel-cut oats are literally cut with a steel blade, but the tool used matters less than the size of its cut. Because these oats are larger and less processed, they take longer for your body to digest — which means they keep your blood sugar steady and help you stay full for longer.
- Rolled or old-fashioned oats are the type that come in that big, round canister your grandma used to buy. They’ve been rolled or flattened to cook in 5 minutes flat.
- Scottish oats are stone-ground into a meal (the ground-up type, not breakfast or lunch). They cook up into a porridge-like mixture.
- Quick or instant oats are the speediest variety. They’re cut so small and rolled so flat that one minute in the microwave is enough to get you a cup of steaming oatmeal.
Oats are a darling of dietary guidelines, in part because they’re heart-healthy. Their nutrient-dense secret is beta glucan, which sounds like a frat house but is actually a type of soluble fiber.
Beta glucan is more like the bouncer at the frat house. It grabs onto the cholesterol in your intestines and steers that unhealthy fat straight out the (um, back) door.
In studies, people who ate a diet rich in oats had lower total cholesterol and lower LDL cholesterol (the artery-clogging type). By lowering cholesterol, the fiber in oatmeal could act as a buffer against heart disease.
If cholesterol lowering weren’t reason enough to roll up to a bowl of oatmeal, then check out the antioxidant content on this grain. Oats contain antioxidant substances like vitamin E, phytic acid, phenolic compounds, and avenanthramides. Antioxidants shield your heart (and the rest of you) from damaging molecules called free radicals.
Beta glucan isn’t just a one-trick fiber. Along with showing bad cholesterol the door, it helps to keep blood sugar managed.
In one review of studies, oats lowered both fasting blood sugar levels and HbA1c — a measure of long-term blood sugar control — in people with type 2 diabetes. It also reduced blood sugar and insulin spikes after meals.
People with type 2 diabetes in another study were even able to cut back on their insulin dose after eating oatmeal for only a few days. And fewer injections is never a bad thing.
A low glycemic load is another perk of eating oatmeal. The glycemic load means how much a particular food makes your blood sugar rise. The lower the better.
How low that load is depends on the type of oats you eat. Steel-cut oats have a low glycemic load because they digest slowly. But the highly processed, sugary flavored oatmeal you pour out of a packet? Not so much.
You know that moment when you realize breakfast has left the building? It’s when your stomach starts crying out for attention in the middle of a big meeting. Not fun.
Oatmeal helps prevent those hangry moments. And yes, it’s beta glucan at work yet again.
Beta glucan increases food’s viscosity, which is a fancy word that simply means it makes food thicker in your stomach. That extra bulk makes food take longer to empty out of your stomach and travel the route through your GI tract. It also slows down the rate at which nutrients get absorbed into your intestines.
Caveat: Oatmeal isn’t a weight-loss solution. That said, it can make a solid contribution to a leaner version of you, if that’s your goal.
Oatmeal works overtime to help you avoid overeating. Not only does it slow stomach emptying to make you feel full for longer, but it also triggers the release of hormones that keep you in that filled-up state of mind for longer. By making you feel satiated, oatmeal might go at least one small step toward helping you achieve any weight loss goals you may have.
Oatmeal — to put it politely — keeps the train chugging through the station that is your GI tract. By adding weight and water to your poop, the fiber in oatmeal prevents backups (aka constipation).
A bowl of oatmeal (or other oat-containing foods) a day also makes for a more diverse GI community. Your gut is teeming with bacteria, a super city that scientists call your “microbiome.”
Beta glucan helps to increase the population of friendly bacteria. They help to crowd out the unfriendly germs that cause digestive woes like diarrhea and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
Who said oats have to be boring? There are plenty of ways to pump up a simple bowl of oatmeal: Throw in a few nuts, fruits, or almond butter. Top it off with cinnamon, honey, or even a little whey protein.
One tip: Purchase plain over presweetened oatmeal to save big on sugar and calories.
There’s also no rule that oatmeal has to be consumed in the morning. Use oats to bulk up your meatloaf at dinnertime, or transform them into a delectable dessert (apple oatmeal bars, anyone?).
Because it’s packed with fiber, low in cost, and easy to prepare, oatmeal might just be the best thing since sliced bread.