Are oats good for you?
If someone told you there was a food that could reduce hunger, boost energy, and lower cholesterol, you’d be all over it, right? Say hello to oats, one of the healthiest grains around. Porridge, oatmeal, overnight oats - there are so many ways to enjoy them! Sadly, they don’t get nearly the love they deserve.
Do oats belong in your bowl? Whether they’re rolled, steel-cut, or instant, here’s everything you need to know about these humble grains plus tricks to make them taste great!
Nutrition facts on oats
It’s easy to assume oats are all about fibre, but they offer lots of other nutrients too. One recent study found that overall, the diets of people who ate porridge daily were more nutritious than those who chose other breakfast foods.
Here’s how oats stack up nutritionally:
1. Oats and fibre
A ½-cup (45g) portion of dry rolled oats provides roughly 6 grams of fibre. Half of that is insoluble fibre, the kind that keeps your bowel movements regular. The other half is soluble fibre, which is linked to better heart health, but that’s only part of the picture. Oats contain a unique kind of soluble fibre called beta-glucan that’s shown to lower cholesterol and cause a slower rise in blood sugar after eating. Plus, it may help with appetite control.
2. Oats and protein
Like most whole grains, oats aren’t overflowing with protein, but they do provide small amounts: A ½-cup serving of dry rolled oats provides approximately 5 grams worth, or roughly as much as ¼-cup uncooked quinoa or ⅓-cup uncooked brown rice. However, the protein in oats is incomplete protein, meaning it doesn’t provide all the essential amino acids the body needs. This means it’s not as high-quality as, say, the complete protein in foods like meat, fish, poultry, eggs, dairy, and soy, which contain all nine of the essential amino acids. So, while it may not be the best source, if you ensure you’re consuming a variety of different protein sources throughout the day you can be confident you’ll be getting all the essential amino acids your body needs.
To pump up the protein in your bowl, try these tricks:
- Cook ½-cup dry rolled oats in 1 cup skim milk or soy milk (total: ~14 grams protein).
- Mix ½-cup dry rolled oats in ½-cup 99% fat-free plain Greek yoghurt (~14 grams protein).
- Soak ½-cup dry rolled oats in 1 cup skim or soy milk for a speedy bowl of overnight oats (total: ~14 grams protein).
3. Oats and carbohydrates
What oats lack in protein they make up for in carbohydrates. A ½-cup of dry rolled oats delivers roughly 23 grams of carbs. If that sounds like a lot, remember that not all carbs are created equally. “Oats are rich in complex carbohydrates that our bodies need and thrive on for energy,” says dietitian Caroline West Passerrello, . “Unlike quickly digested simple carbohydrates, complex carbohydrates take time to digest, so they deliver fuel over a longer period.” With less than 1 gram of natural sugar and zero added sugar per ½-cup, oats get high marks in the sugar department too.
4. Oats and kilojoules
If you’re watching your energy intake but love carbs, oats and porridge could be one of the best bargains around. The reason? Porridge is low in energy density, which basically means it’s low in kilojoules relative to its weight. Even though dry oats are dense and compact, add water and heat and they swell up a lot. So after ½-cup of oats are cooked, they balloon into a big, visually-satisfying serving for only around 640 kJ (or about 150-calories).
“Just keep in mind while a simple bowl of porridge may seem like a great, filling breakfast, its kilojoules can add up quickly if you're not careful,” says Liz Weiss, registered dietitian. Energy-dense add-ins like brown sugar, maple syrup, honey, butter, dried fruit, nuts, and seeds can also contribute kilojoules.
5. Oats and vitamins and minerals
Oats deliver key vitamins and minerals like: copper , iron , magnesium, phosphorus, selenium , thiamin and zinc to help you meet your daily nutritional needs.
Benefits of oats
With all that nutrition, it’s no surprise that oats can do some pretty great things for your body. Here are just a few of their health benefits.
1. Better heart health
Research reveals that men who regularly eat oats may be less likely to suffer a heart attack. “The beta-glucan in oats can actually reduce cholesterol by increasing the excretion of cholesterol-rich bile,” says Rachel Begun, registered dietitian and an expert in gluten-related disorders. Another reason oats spell better heart health? They’re the only grain that contains avenanthramides, antioxidants that may reduce inflammation and relax the arteries, promoting better blood flow to the heart.
2. Blood sugar control
“Emerging research shows beta-glucans may also enhance glycaemic control,” Passarrello says. Oats are so effective that a recent meta-analysis of 16 studies found that people with type 2 diabetes who regularly ate oats had lower blood glucose levels than those who rarely consumed this grain. How so? Researchers suspect that oat beta-glucan slows the release of glucose into the bloodstream preventing spikes that raise blood sugar. This also means less insulin is needed to keep blood sugar in the optimum range.
3. Gluten-free nutrition
Oats are rich in fibre and a good source of several vitamins and minerals including manganese and selenium. However, even though oats are naturally gluten-free they can easily be contaminated with gluten during processing. “For those with coeliac disease and gluten sensitivity who must follow a strict gluten-free diet, the only safe option is to purchase certified gluten-free oats,” Begun says. In Australia and New Zealand, labelling restrictions prevent companies from labelling oats as gluten-free, but you can purchase imported gluten-free oats online or at some health food stores.
4. Better gut health
“Few of us get the recommended 25 to 30 grams of fibre each day,” Passerrello says. “With roughly 6 grams of fibre per ½-cup serving, oats are a great way to reduce the fibre gap.” Not only does oat fibre draw water into the gut and help bulk things up, gut-friendly bacteria that live in the colon love to feast on it. So, think of it as fertiliser to help good gut bacteria grow and thrive.
Oats for weight loss
Research suggests oats can help with weight loss too. Here’s how:
They slow digestion. Like all whole grains, oats take time to break down and digest. During digestion they also slow the movement of digested food as it makes its way through the gut. That slowed transit of a digested meal means glucose is more slowly absorbed into the bloodstream, causing a gentle rise in insulin levels rather than a large increase.
- They promote fullness. Unlike some other breakfast foods, oats won't leave you counting down the minutes until lunchtime. Luckily, oats stimulate the release of cholecystokinin, a hormone in the gut that tells the brain it’s time to put down your fork.
- They help to reduce the desire to munch. “While there are many factors that lead us to eat, foods that enhance satiety, like oats, may help people resist environmental cues that prompt them to eat.” Passerrello says.
Steel cut vs. rolled oats
Oats come in lots of different varieties. Two of the most popular are steel cut and rolled. What’s the difference? “Steel-cut oats are whole oat kernels, technically known as oat groats, that are cut into a few pieces with a steel blade, making their pieces larger and heartier so they take longer to cook,” says Michelle Dudash, registered dietitian. “Rolled oats are just groats that are steamed, then rolled, making them thinner and faster cooking.” There can be nutritional differences too, with some brands of steel cut oats supplying slightly more fibre and protein than rolled oats, says Dudash.
Then there’s quick oats. “Quick oats are usually pre-cooked, then rolled, dried, and pressed slightly thinner than rolled oats,” Dudash says. “They’re also milled more finely resulting in a less nutty taste and smoother texture.” As a result, they get digested faster and may not offer the same slow, sustained sugar release as their less-processed cousins, but that doesn’t mean they’re not worth eating. When researchers in a recent study served volunteers a breakfast of quick oats or an oat-based breakfast cereal, the quick oats group reported feeling more full, less hungry, and consumed fewer kilojoules later on at lunch. Just remember that some quick oats can pack more than their fair share of added sugar. To make sure your favourite brand isn’t one of them, check out the nutrition information panel and the ingredient list.
Oats for breakfast
Oats may seem bland, but their mild taste means they can take on lots of different flavours. The key is to season them strategically. “If you feel like eating something sweet, keep the added sugar—such as white or brown sugar, honey, maple syrup, or agave—to a minimum and opt for natural pops of sweetness with fresh or dried fruit instead,” Weiss says. Or try a pinch of cinnamon. Need more inspiration? Try these recipes:
The upshot: Are oats healthy?
Oats and porridge can provide the canvas for a nutrient-rich breakfast that makes a great, healthy start to your day, Weiss says. The healthiest way to enjoy oats is when prepared with water, skim milk or a calcium-fortified plant-based milk alternative.
Snack foods that contain oats, such as oat pancakes, bars or muffins, might sound like good picks, but they can be filled with lots of hidden sugar, fat, and energy. Plus, they lack the volume and viscosity of oats, so they’re unlikely to be as filling and satisfying. Instead, make the most of your bowl by topping it with fresh fruit and spices of your choice. Delish!