You have probably been hearing for years that eating a bowl of oatmeal for breakfast is a healthy way to start the day — but do you know why? What is it that makes oatmeal so special, and how much of it should you eat? And does instant oatmeal count?
Here's a quick, science-based breakdown of the health benefits of that morning bowl of oatmeal.
Oats Are Whole Grains
Oats are whole grains, meaning they have not been stripped of their nutritious bran and germ in processing. Different processing methods affect the cooking time and texture of the cooked oatmeal, but not the nutrients of the oats themselves, so whether they are rolled, steel-cut or instant, oats are a good source of B vitamins, several minerals, and soluble fiber.
→ Learn more: What's the Difference? Steel-Cut, Rolled, and Quick Oats
The Deal with Soluble Fiber
Soluble fiber is really the star of the show when it comes to the health benefits of eating oatmeal. Soluble fiber dissolves in water as it goes through the digestive system, turning into a gel that slows digestion, keeping you feeling fuller longer. It is also a prebiotic, meaning the fiber feeds the good bacteria in your gut, which may be beneficial to your overall health.
Beta-glucan is the name of the specific type of soluble fiber found in oats, and it has been linked to various health benefits in scientific studies. (Oatmeal isn't the only food with these benefits; other beta-glucan-containing foods include barley, shiitake mushrooms, and seaweed.) Most notable is its role in lowering LDL ("bad") cholesterol, which is linked to a decreased risk for heart disease. The scientific support for the cholesterol-lowering effects of beta-glucans is so widespread, the FDA allows food manufacturers to make health claims on the packaging of foods like oatmeal. A container of Quaker Oats, for example, includes this statement: As part of a heart-healthy diet, the soluble fiber in oatmeal can help reduce cholesterol.
Other studies have found that beta-glucans may help control appetite, boost immune system defenses, improve insulin sensitivity, and reduce the risk of certain types of cancer, but none of these findings are conclusive enough to make specific recommendations about eating oatmeal for those health benefits.
How Much Oatmeal Is Good for You?
The experts do have some guidance on how much oatmeal you should eat to reduce your cholesterol: 3 grams of beta-glucans per day from oats is the amount that has been shown to reduce blood cholesterol levels. According to Today's Dietitian, you can find that amount in one-and-a-half cups of cooked oatmeal, or three packets of instant oatmeal.
So enjoy that bowl of oatmeal in the morning! No, it is not a magical sponge that "actually soaks up excess cholesterol and removes it from your body," as the Quaker Oats Company used to claim, but it is good for you and — perhaps more importantly — a warm bowl of oatmeal is a delicious and deeply comforting way to start the day.