A Dietitian’s Guide to the Health Benefits of Oats

Oats are a versatile and budget-friendly pantry staple that this dietitian always keeps on hand. In this post, we’ll answer all your questions about oats and oatmeal, health benefits, as well as dietitian-approved recipes for oatmeal.

If you are looking for a healthy way to start your day, you can’t go wrong with a bowl of oatmeal. Oats are budget-freindly, easy to make, and offer a variety of health benefits. In this post, we’ll answer all your questions about oats and oatmeal, the health benefits, as well as dietitian-approved recipes with oats.

What are Oats?

Oats, also known by the scientific name Avena sativa, are a popular whole grain food from the Poaceae grass family of plants. When we use the word oats, we typically refer to the edible seeds of oat grass. Oats are a budget-friendly pantry staple that can be used in all kinds of recipes from oatmeal to muffins and more. Not only are they versatile, but oats are also loaded with health benefits which we’ll review in this post.

Different Types of Oats

  • Old Fashioned Rolled Oats: My favorite type of oats are old fashioned because they still keep a lot of their texture after cooking, but don’t need to cook as long as steel cut oats. Old fashioned oats are made by steaming, rolling and flattening oat groats into flakes. They are then dried to remove moisture so they are shelf-stable. The cooking time for old fashioned rolled oats is 5 minutes on the stovetop.
  • Steel Cut Oats: These oats haven’t been rolled, but rather cut into two or three smaller pieces either using a steel blade. Since the size of the pieces is larger with less surface area, they take longer to cook. The cooking time for steel cut oats is 25-30 minutes on the stovetop.
  • Quick or Instant Oats:  To make quick cooking oats, the oat groats are steamed for a longer period and rolled into thinner pieces so that they can absorb water easily and cook quicker. When buying instant oats in the store, be sure to double check the ingredients as they are often sweetened (especially the ones that are flavored). The cooking time for quick or instant oats is just 1-2 minutes on the stovetop.

Which type of oatmeal is healthiest?

When you look at the nutrition, they are all essentially the same, so pick whichever type of oatmeal that you like best! They all have about 150 calories, 4 grams of fiber, and 5 grams of protein per 1/2 cup serving. Some instant oats are sold with flavorings and added sugars, so double check the label if you want to avoid or limit added sugars.

Nutrient Composition of Oats

Oats are rich in carbohydrates and provide a variety of other essential vitamins and minerals. Here’s a closer look at the nutrient composition per the USDA. Values below are based on a 1/2 cup (40 grams) serving of old fashioned rolled oats.

  • Calories: 153 kcals
  • Carbohydrates: 27 grams
  • Fiber: 4 grams
  • Protein: 5 grams
  • Total Fat: 3 grams
  • Saturated Fat: 0.5 grams
  • Iron: 8% DV
  • Thiamine: 15% DV
  • Phosphorus: 10% DV
  • Magnesium: 10% DV

Health Benefits of Oats

You may be wondering, are overnight oats healthy? Like oatmeal, overnight oats are also a great option for a quick and healthy breakfast. As a plant-based dietitian, I love starting my day with a breakfast made with oats since they are packed with health-benefits. I love starting my day with a bowl of oatmeal or some overnight oats. I even throw oats in my vegan smoothies sometimes!

Here are just a few reasons that overnight oats are good for you.

Heart Health

High cholesterol is a major risk factor for heart disease, which remains the leading cause of death globally. The soluble fiber, beta-glucan, in oats has been shown to help reduce both total and LDL (bad) cholesterol levels.

Beta-glucan may also reduce the oxidation of LDL cholesterol. When LDL is oxidized, it increases inflammation in arteries which in turn raises the risk of heart attacks and stroke. Some studies also note that beta-glucan seems to help lower blood pressure by helping blood vessels relax.

Can Help Balance Blood Sugar

The soluble fiber in oats may help improve insulin sensitivity which can help lower blood sugar levels. The high fiber content of oats also helps slow down digestion which reduces that post-meal spike in blood sugar.

Oats are also a high protein whole grain. The combination of both protein and fiber may also help lower the body’s insulin response to eating oats. So even those with diabetes can enjoy a breakfast with oats.

Keeps You Feeling Full Longer

The soluble fiber in oats attracts water, increasing the volume of food in the gut, slowing down digestion and increasing satiety. Also, when the beta-glucan in oats is fermented by the bacteria in the gut, it forms short chain fatty acids. This creates a chain of events that can trigger the release of peptide Y, the satiety hormone.

Prevents Constipation and Supports Gut Health

Oats are a good source of both soluble and insoluble fiber. Both types of fiber are important for supporting a healthy gut. Soluble fiber dissolves in water to form a gel that helps feed the healthy bacteria in the colon. While insoluble fiber attracts water and helps to form softer, bulkier and more regular stools.

As the beta-glucan in oats is fermented in the gut and breaks down, it has been reported to increase the diversity of microbes in the gut. Increased gut microbe diversity can improve some digestive health issues like diarrhea or constipation.

A High Fiber Food

Most Americans only get about half of the recommended amount of fiber each day. Having a serving of oats (1/2 cup of rolled oats) provides at least 4 grams of fiber, or about 14% of the daily value. Serving your oats with some fruit or seeds like chia seeds or hemp seeds will boost the fiber even more.

Eating a diet rich in fiber not only improves digestive health, but can lower your risk of all kinds of chronic diseases like heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and breast, colon, and rectal cancers.

Cancer Prevention

Like all plant foods, oats are rich in polyphenols which act like antioxidants in our body. Antioxidants help prevent the cell damage caused by oxidative stress which over time can increase your risk of chronic diseases like cancer or heart disease.

One bioactive compound that is specific to oats is avenanthramides. There isn’t a ton of research on them, but we do know that they have antioxidant activity which can play a role in preventing cancer.

Cooked Oatmeal vs Overnight Oats

Are there any nutrition benefits of eating overnight oats vs cooked oatmeal? Not really! The nutrient breakdown of both versions of oatmeal is pretty much the same. It all comes down to which is more convenient for you and the one that you will eat!

Overnight Oats vs Muesli

Bircher muesli is actually the original overnight oats. It was developed by a Swiss physician named Maximilian Oskar Bircher-Benner around 1900 as a way to help his patients eat more fruit. The original muesli recipe consisted of grated apple with milk, honey, nuts, and oats. Packaged muesli is usually made from oats, dried fruit, nuts, and seeds as well as other grains like wheat or rye flakes.

Overnight oats is the modern day equivalent of muesli as the ingredients and preparation are essentially the same. Muesli is sometimes made with apple juice whereas overnight oats are almost always soaked in milk.