Oatmeal: Breakfast of Champions!

If you are looking for a great-tasting food that can help you begin your day with lasting energy, lose weight, fight disease, and stabilize your blood sugars, eat oatmeal! It’s high in dietary fiber, quality protein, and vitamins and minerals, as well as phytonutrients. It is the breakfast of champions!

Research indicates that eating oats, oat bran, and oatmeal helps lower elevated blood cholesterol level, thanks to their special type of soluble fiber, called beta-glucan. Soluble fiber helps prevent a rise in cholesterol by forming a gel that traps substances associated with elevated cholesterol. This soluble fiber also helps stabilize blood sugar levels by reducing spikes and dips, especially in people wth type 2 diabetes.

Additionally, fiber adds volume to food, leaving you feeling more satisfied between breakfast and lunch. Soluble fiber, once digested, forms a gel-like substance. This gel adds to the viscosity of the contents in the stomach and small intestine to help you feel full longer. Emerging research is showing that children who are given oatmeal on a regular basis may be as less likely to become obese than those who do not eat oatmeal.

One serving of steel-cut oatmeal, old-fashioned rolled oats, or quick oatmeal contains about 4 grams of fiber and 150 nutrient-dense calories. Those calories are derived from an optimal ratio of quality protein, good fat, and high-fiber complex carbohydrates in order to energize your day. Research at Tufts University demonstrated enhanced cognitive development in 6-to-11-year-olds eating oatmeal for breakfast, compared to those eating ready-to-eat cereal. They theorized that due to the differences in protein and fiber content, glycemic scores, and rate of digestion, oatmeal provides a slower and more sustained energy source which may result in cognitive enhancement, versus the low-fiber, high-glycemic index, ready-to-eat cereals.

Steel-cut, stone-ground, and old-fashioned oats offer 5 g of high quality (although not complete) protein per serving. ½ cup of dry old-fashioned oats and ¼ cup of dry steel-cut oats are equivalent, as the steel-cut oats absorb more liquid. Instant oatmeal provides 4 g of protein per packet or a 28 g serving. Prepare oatmeal with nonfat skim milk, if possible, to complete the protein and to add additional protein. For those who can’t drink milk, milk alternatives like almond or soy milk also complete the oatmeal’s protein. A tablespoon of peanut or almond butter also completes and increases the protein.

Oatmeal contains 68% of the daily value of manganese in one serving and is high in selenium, phosphorus, magnesium, and zinc. It is also a source of other important minerals and vitamins such as iron, calcium, potassium, copper, and vitamin B1 (thiamin), vitamin B2 (riboflavin), folate, pantothenic acid, and vitamins E and K. Several brands of oatmeal are wheat, gluten, and dairy-free and are a healthy choice for individuals with celiac disease or for those who are otherwise gluten-intolerant.

Newer research is revealing a myriad of phytonutrients contained in whole grains, such as oats. Dr. Liu and his colleagues at Cornell University showed that whole grains, such as oats, contain many powerful phytonutrients whose activity has gone unrecognized because older research methods have not detected them previously. A group of phenolic compounds unique to oats is the avenanthramides, which occur in oats in relatively high concentrations and are antiatherogenic and anti-inflammatory. Researchers found that the phenolic antioxidants in oats worked in concert with vitamin C  (rich in fruits) and vitamin E (rich in nuts) to keep the bad cholesterol (LDL) from oxidizing. Adding fruit and nuts to oatmeal could dish up double cardiac benefits, which in turn further increases oatmeal’s overall nutritional profile.

Confused about the different types of oats? Whole oats have a hard outer shell or hull that must be removed before eating. Hulled oats are called oat groats, but this process does not strip away their bran and germ, allowing them to retain a concentrated source of fiber and nutrients and remain a “whole grain”.  Steel cut (or Irish) oats are hulled oats or groats that are chopped into two or three pieces by steel cutters but still retain their great fiber and nutrient content. Stone-ground (Scottish) oats are similar to steel cut but are stone ground into smaller pieces. Old-fashioned or rolled oats are groats that are flaked, steamed,  flattened with rollers, and then re-steamed and toasted. Quick and instant oats are steamed more so that the cooking time is shortened. Quick oatmeal has less fiber removed than instant oatmeal, and still contains more nutrition than most cereals. Instant oatmeal usually contains added oat flour, minerals, colorings, salt, and guar gum (a thickener). Flavored instant oatmeal contains up to 12 g of added sugar per single serving packet, equal to about three teaspoons of sugar.

While instant oatmeal offers a similar nutritional value to that of slow-cooked oatmeal, the extra sugar in flavored instant oatmeal, along with less fiber and protein content from extra processing, causes the body to digest instant oatmeal faster than other types. This results in a faster absorption of sugar into the bloodstream, and thus a higher ranking on the glycemic index. The glycemic index for steel-cut oats is 42, for rolled oats is 50, and for instant oats is 66. The glycemic index of 42 is a pretty reasonable number, and if you add more protein (nuts, seeds, milk or yogurt), you decrease the overall rate of absorption even further. Some diabetic patients can eat oatmeal without a significant blood sugar increase by stirring a spoonful of peanut butter or almond butter into it until it melts. Opt for the less-processed types of oatmeal if possible, but when you’re rushing out the door, keep an instant oatmeal on hand that doesn’t have too much sugar and other additives – it’s still a whole grain, and more nutritious than most ready-to-eat cereal or a typical bagel, for instance.

Oatmeal is easy to prepare and can be served in a variety of ways. The preparation of rolled oats uses two parts liquid to one part oats, and steel-cut oats require using three to four parts liquid to one part oats depending on how thick or soupy you like it. For all types, it is best to add the oats to cold water or milk and then cook to a simmer. Rolled oats take approximately 15 minutes to cook while the steel-cut variety takes about 30-40 minutes. Steel-cut oats are chewier, nuttier tasting and less mushy than rolled oats. My favorite way to prepare steel-cut oatmeal is in a slow cooker using a water bath, which makes for even cooking and an easier clean-up. Try my Overnight Slow Cooker Oatmeal and wake up to the most amazing aroma. Even if the texture is a little different from what your family is used to, the smell will persuade them to eat it, and after a few times, it will be their oatmeal of choice! It’s comfort food gone healthy. Refrigerate the leftovers and heat up in the microwave for your “instant steel-cut oatmeal”.

Experiment with different toppings to add variety to the oatmeal. Try fresh fruit, dried fruit, frozen fruit (I love frozen blueberries rinsed in warm water for 30 seconds), real maple syrup, agave nectar, honey, cinnamon, canned pumpkin, apple sauce, almond butter, peanut butter (great with bananas), mini chocolate chips, nuts, or sunflower seeds. This Pumpkin Apple Pie Oatmeal is a great change-of-pace. The kids will feel like they are eating pie for breakfast. Add raw rolled oats to smoothies, chocolate chip cookies and meatballs. Top these Oatmeal Buttermilk Pancakes with cooked-down frozen or fresh fruit for an alternative oatmeal breakfast. Use oatmeal in your cooking any way you can to boost the nutrition in your family’s diet.

Take the March 2012 Healthy Challenge and eat oatmeal several times a week. Find ways that you and your family can enjoy eating this nutritious, disease-fighting food to have the health of champions!