November 17, 2022

Is Oatmeal Always Healthy for Breakfast?

It’s hard to beat the benefits of oats, but be cautious of sugared-up instant oatmeal options

A white bowl filled with hot oatmeal and fresh raspberries and blueberries on a white plate.

Oatmeal carries a reputation as a bowl of healthy goodness. But is the mighty oat really that super-duper or are you getting snookered at the breakfast table every morning?

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Well, the answer depends on what kind of oatmeal you’re eating.

It’s hard to go wrong eating basic run-of-the-mill oats, a whole grain with a stellar nutritional resume. But when you open a packet of flavored instant oatmeal for a meal … well, let’s just say the healthiness grade can drop a bit.

We turn to registered dietitian Beth Czerwony, RD, for some spoonful of knowledge on the matter.

Benefits of oatmeal

Healthy food bragging rights? Oatmeal certainly has them. For starters, it’s packed with protein and dietary fiber — two biggies for your body when it comes to eating a nutritious diet. (More on that in a bit.)

And just look at this robust list of vitamins and nutrients found in old-fashioned rolled or steel-cut oats. (The numbers are for a half-cup of oats, roughly the amount in a single serving of oatmeal.)

  • Manganese: 64% of your recommended daily amount.
  • Copper: 18% of your recommended daily amount.
  • Vitamin B1 (thiamin): 16% of your recommended daily amount.
  • Magnesium: 13% of your recommended daily amount.
  • Phosphorous: 13% of your recommended daily amount.
  • Zinc: 13% of your recommended daily amount.
  • Iron: 10% of your recommended daily amount.
  • Vitamin B5: 9% of your recommended daily amount.

“It’s really a nutrient-dense food,” says Czerwony.

4 reasons to eat oatmeal

So, what can all of those vitamins and nutrients do for you? Let’s break it down.

Lower your cholesterol

Want to keep your heart healthy? Eat oatmeal. Research shows that a daily bowl of oatmeal can lower your levels of total cholesterol and artery-clogging bad cholesterol. (High cholesterol levels can be a contributing factor to heart disease.)

Those oats can work pretty quickly, too, notes Czerwony. One study found that people saw significant changes in cholesterol levels after just six weeks of working oat flakes into their daily diet.

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“It’s a big win for your health — and you get it done before leaving the house in the morning,” she adds.

Improve blood sugar control

Many of the good deeds linked to oatmeal involve a type of soluble fiber known as beta-glucan. Aside from its work on cholesterol, beta-glucan also can slow the absorption of glucose (or sugars) into your blood.

The reason? After you eat oatmeal, that beta-glucan breaks down into a gel-like solution that coats your gut. That thick layer of goo naturally slows down how fast sugars enter your bloodstream.

Given that, some studies show that oatmeal is an ideal food for someone with Type 2 diabetes. (Other research, however, has been more subdued about the effects of oatmeal on glycemic control.)

Promote weight loss

After a meal, oatmeal tends to sit heavy in your belly — and that can help you get lighter.

“If you feel full for longer after eating, it’s easier to go from meal to meal without grazing on unhealthy snacks,” says Czerwony. “In the end, that cuts down on extra calories you might consume.”

Researchers found that eating oats can reduce:

Keep bowel movements regular

Thanks to its fiber-rich makeup, oatmeal can have a definite regulatory effect on your pooping pattern. It packs a double punch, too, with both insoluble and soluble fiber to help move things along.

Studies focused on older adults even show that eating oat bran can eliminate the need to take laxatives to relieve constipation, which often becomes more of an issue with age.

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“Oatmeal can really help with digestion and your gastrointestinal health,” notes Czerwony.

A half-cup of oats contains about 4 grams of dietary fiber. To put that number in perspective, your daily fiber target for good gastrointestinal health should be between 25 grams and 35 grams.

Can oatmeal be bad for you?

Given all the good in oats, it seems like it would be a monumental task to make oatmeal anything less than healthy. But there is a way — which brings us to some instant oatmeal options.

Flavored oatmeal packets are often laced with enough sugar to erode some of the base nutritional value brought by the oats, says Czerwony.

“There are always ways to make things unhealthy, and that’s what we see with a lot of instant oatmeal,” she adds. “Food manufacturers will add sugar — a LOT of sugar — to make them taste better.”

Czerwony’s recommendation? “Check the nutritional label and look for added sugars. If you see them, look for another option.”

And if you want to boost the neutral flavor of oatmeal, add fruit or spices to your bowl. And even if you toss in sweeteners such as brown sugar or maple syrup, doing it yourself gives you more control over the added sugar.

Oatmeal ideas for breakfast

So, if you’re now sold on oatmeal for breakfast, let’s set a menu. Here are some easy recipes to get the most from your oats.

  • Overnight Oats: Try one of these options for overnight oats. As the name suggests, this dish is prepared before you go to bed at night and left in the fridge to chill. It’s a process that promises to make your morning a bit easier.
  • Slow Cooker Steel-Cut Oats: Another overnight option. The twist? This one uses a slow cooker for a hot-and-ready morning meal.
  • 2-Minute Super-Charged Oatmeal: You’ll be ready to take on the day after eating this power-packed bowl of oats. And the cooking time is only 120 seconds in the microwave!
  • Tropical Breakfast Bowl: Give your breakfast an island vibe with a bowl of oatmeal boosted with the sweetness of mango and coconut.

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