Food Healthy Eating By Meghan Woolley / May 29, 2015 Oatmeal has been around for generations, and it’s been a kitchen staple for just as long. You probably ate it as a kid, you likely eat it now, and chances are that if you have kids of your own, you’ve given it to them too. But you may be wondering: is oatmeal healthy?In general, the answer is yes. Oatmeal is rich in fiber and contains a good amount of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, and it has often been claimed that eating oatmeal can help to lower your cholesterol. However, how healthy oatmeal is largely depends on what kind of oatmeal you choose and what you add to it. While oats themselves are fairly healthy, instant oatmeal generally contains additives such as salt, sugar, and artificial flavorings that are not healthy. Many common toppings for oatmeal, such as sugar and jam, are also unhealthy. So the answer to “Is oatmeal healthy?” is largely up to you. What Exactly is Oatmeal? Oatmeal is made from the groats of oats. The groat is the whole grain at the center of an oat. To make oatmeal, oat grains are de-husked, and the groats are then roasted over a low heat. This heating process gives oatmeal its distinct nutty flavor and stabilizes it, giving it a long shelf life. What Are the Different Kinds of Oatmeal? Once the groats are roasted, there are a few different ways of preparing oatmeal. Steel-cut oats are oat groats that are steamed and then cut into smaller pieces. Rolled oats are whole oat groats that are steamed and then pressed flat between rollers. Because rolled oats are thin, they reabsorb water quickly. If you see oatmeal labeled quick-cooking oats or quick oats, these are rolled oats that have been rolled even thinner than usual and cut into smaller pieces. These will cook more quickly and have a smoother texture. Instant oats are broken into even smaller pieces than quick oats, and then they are cooked and dried. Because they are pre-cooked, they are very fast to cook. Instant oatmeal typically has additives such as sweeteners and flavorings. Oatmeal’s Nutritional Value Oatmeal’s nutritional value will vary a bit depending on what kind of oatmeal you choose and how you prepare it, but all kinds of oatmeal contain some base nutrients. The main things you’re going to find in oatmeal are fiber, carbohydrates, iron, and a handful of minerals. One cup of oatmeal contains somewhere in the neighborhood of 8 grams of fiber. That means you can be getting up to about 30% of your daily value of fiber in your breakfast. A cup of oatmeal also contains about 11 grams of protein and 56 carbohydrates (about 20% of your daily value). Because of the high fiber content, these carbohydrates will be digested slowly, making them a better choice than other carb-heavy breakfast choices, such as cereal and toast. One serving also contains about 5 grams of fat and 1 gram of sugar. When it comes to vitamins and minerals, oatmeal is a pretty good pick. One serving contains about 20% of the recommended daily value for iron, plus 25% of magnesium, 30% of phosphorous, and 4% of calcium. The two stand-out values here are the fiber and iron. These two nutrients can be difficult to incorporate into your daily diet but are important to have. Oatmeal is a great source of both. Oatmeal and Cholesterol A number of studies have suggested that oatmeal helps to lower LDL (“bad”) cholesterol, and the FDA authorized oatmeal manufacturers to advertise their products as reducing the risk of heart disease. Oatmeal’s benefits for cholesterol almost definitely come from its high fiber content. In particular, oats contain a kind of fiber called beta-glucan, which is water-soluble. It’s still unclear exactly how fiber helps to lower bad cholesterol, but it is most likely because fiber sticks to cholesterol. This prevents the cholesterol from being absorbed into your system, and it is instead flushed out as waste. Because oats have such a high fiber content, they can help to improve your cholesterol. Of course, oats can’t perform a health miracle by themselves. However, when combined with other foods that help to lower cholesterol, one to two servings of oatmeal a day can help to notably improve heart health. Which Oatmeal is Healthiest? The rule for healthy oatmeal is the same as for many other kinds of foods: the less processed, the better. The less processing the oat groats go through, the better they are for you. For quick reference, here’s a chart of the different kinds of oatmeal, from the healthiest (1) to the least healthy (4): Steel Cut Oats Rolled Oats Quick Oats Instant Oatmeal The nutrient content of steel cut, rolled, and quick oats is all pretty similar. Steel cut oats have slightly fewer calories and grams of sugar, but it’s a pretty negligible difference. The key thing that makes them healthier is the glycemic index. The glycemic index measures how much your blood sugar will spike after eating a particular food. Steel cut oats have the lowest glycemix index because they are the least processed. Steel cut oats are simply steamed and chopped into pieces. Rolled oats are typically steamed twice and toasted. Quick oats are further processed to make them thinner and smaller. This means that rolled oats and quick oats get digested more quickly, causing them to increase your blood pressure more quickly. Altogether, however, all three of these kinds of oatmeal are a healthy choice. Instant oatmeal is what you want to avoid. Instant oatmeal is heavily processed, pre-cooked, and dehydrated. The oats then have lots of things added to them to give them a stronger flavor. Almost every kind of instant oatmeal has added salt, sugar, sometimes high fructose corn syrup, and other artificial flavorings. In addition to these unhealthy additions, instant oatmeal is high on the glycemic index and will cause your blood pressure to spike. Stick to steel cut, rolled, or quick oats, and you’ll still be getting the health benefits of oatmeal without artificial additives. To be extra healthy, look for organic or local oats whenever possible. Ways To Prepare Oatmeal Preparing oatmeal is pretty simple: you need to cook the oats in liquid to get a creamy texture. What kind of liquid you use and how long you cook it for will depend on your personal taste and the kind of oatmeal you’re using. The less processed your oats are, the longer they’ll need to cook for. Steel cut oats, for example, will take the longest to cook (usually around 30 minutes). The best idea is to follow the instructions on the packaging for your particular oatmeal, and remember that you can always add more liquid after a taste test if you want a thinner oatmeal. The standard cooking technique for cooking oatmeal is to bring the water to a boil, add your dry oats to the saucepan, and then cook over low heat while stirring occasionally until the water is all absorbed. You can add a bit of seasoning, such as salt or butter, directly to the water before cooking. A pinch of salt will help to make your oatmeal flavorful, not bland. Water is a popular choice, particularly for people trying to cut down on calories. If you prefer a thicker oatmeal, you can also use milk. Milk will usually produce a thicker, stickier oatmeal. Healthy Oatmeal Add-ins Oatmeal itself is pretty mild, so a lot of the flavor and excitement of eating it comes from what you put on top. Toppings can add a delightful range of flavor and texture to your oatmeal. Be careful, though; what you put on top can also turn oatmeal from a healthy meal into a sugar-filled dessert for breakfast. Although you may have added gobs of sugar as a kid, try your best to keep the sugar to a minimum. Instead, add in some berries or chopped fruit for a natural sweetness that’s way more flavorful and better for you. If you have a sweet tooth, a swirl of honey or real maple syrup can sweeten up your oatmeal. To vary up your oatmeal’s texture and add in some protein, try adding a handful of nuts. And don’t forget the spices! Spices such as cinnamon and nutmeg can make your oatmeal fragrant and delicious. Check out the following lists for some ideas of what to add to your oatmeal. Some of them might seem unusual, but you’d be surprised at what can make a delicious and delightfully different breakfast (or lunch or dinner!). Fruit Sliced Banana figsPomegranate seedsRaspberriesBlackberriesCoconut flakesKiwiPassion fruit Spice & Seasoning Cinnamon NutmegCocoa powderPeanut butterHoney Nuts & Seeds Walnuts PistachiosPumpkin seedsCashewsAlmond sliversFlax Savory Zucchini YogurtCottage cheese And here’s one more tip from Bon Apétit: serve your oatmeal in a deep bowl or mug instead of a shallow bowl so that it stays warm for longer. No one likes cold oatmeal. So now you have your answer to “Is oatmeal healthy?” and you have a bunch of ideas for toppings. Now all you have left to do is get imaginative with mixing and matching your toppings, and enjoy a bowl or two. Do you have a favorite mix-in? Tell us about what you love to stir into your oatmeal below.