The Health Benefits of Oats Will Renew Your Love of Oatmeal

Are oats good for you? A registered dietitian breaks down oats' nutrition facts and the key health perks the whole grain has to offer.

Bowl of dried oats on an orange background
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Back when you were a kid with picky-eating tendencies, there's a good chance your parents forced you to suffer through a bowl of mushy, flavorless oatmeal before you rushed off to school, much to your displeasure.

But as it turns out, your folks may have been onto something — those bland oats come with plenty of nutritional perks. Here, a registered dietitian gives the low-down on oats' benefits and shares creative ways to add the grain to your plate if you're still disgusted by soggy porridge as an adult. (P.S. oatmeal can do your skin some good too.)

What Are Oats?

Formally known as Avena sativa, oats are a type of cereal grain predominantly grown in the U.S., Canada, and Russia, according to research published in the Journal of Food Science and Technology. Like quinoa and barley, oats are a type of whole grain, meaning the entire oat kernel — including the bran layer (which is rich in fiber and B vitamins), the germ (which is full of healthy fats and vitamin E), and the endosperm (which contains carbs and protein) — is still intact after processing, according to the Whole Grains Council.

Oats Nutrition Facts

Oats' biggest claim to fame is its high fiber content, but that's not the only nutrient the whole grain has to offer. The go-to breakfast food also provides energizing carbohydrates and antioxidants that may help prevent free radical damage. Plus, oats are a good source of plant-based protein, offering 5 grams per half cup, says Maya Feller, M.S., R.D.N., C.D.N., a registered dietitian nutritionist in New York City. In comparison, half a cup of cooked quinoa packs about four grams of the muscle-building macronutrient, while half a cup of cooked barley offers less than 2 grams, according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).

While there are a few varieties of oats available — rolled (aka old-fashioned), steel-cut, and instant, all of which are processed differently — they all have roughly the same nutritional profile, says Feller. For the purposes of this article, the nutrition facts and health benefits will be focused on rolled oats. Here, the nutritional profile of 1/2 cup of rolled oats, according to the USDA:

  • 150 calories
  • 5 grams protein
  • 2.5 grams fat
  • 28 grams carbohydrate
  • 4 grams fiber
  • 0 grams sugar

Health Benefits of Oats

Oats don't just have a well-rounded nutritional profile — they can also provide some serious off-label rewards for your health. Here are a few key benefits to consider:

Support Regular Bowel Movements

In a half-cup serving of rolled oats, you'll score 4 grams of fiber (14 percent of the recommended dietary allowance). According to the Mayo Clinic, fiber is simply the parts of plant foods that your body can't break down, which pass through your digestive system relatively intact as a result. ICYDK, there are two distinct types of fiber, both of which are found in oats: soluble fiber (which dissolves in water), and insoluble fiber (which doesn't dissolve in water). The insoluble fiber, in particular, increases the weight and size of your poops and promotes the movement of material through your digestive tract, according to the Mayo Clinic. Translation: Noshing on some oats could help reduce the odds of constipation — and the amount of time you spend on the porcelain throne.

Help Reduce Cholesterol

Along with that insoluble fiber, oats are rich in beta-glucans, a type of soluble fiber found primarily in oats and barley that's known for its cholesterol-lowering properties, according to research published in Nutrition Reviews. Specifically, beta-glucans create a gel-like material that can help clear low-density lipoprotein (aka LDL or "bad") cholesterol from the body, says Feller. "Imagine fiber as like a web moving through your intestinal tract — it helps trap things that you don't necessarily want in there, [such as] LDL cholesterol particles. Fiber can help reduce it as it moves its way through the colon," Alex Caspero, M.A., R.D., a registered dietitian and plant-based chef in St. Louis, previously told Shape.

In fact, research shows that consuming at least 3 grams of beta-glucans from oats daily can reduce total and LDL cholesterol levels by 5 to 10 percent, both in people with normal and high cholesterol levels. And this health benefit of oats is important, as high levels of LDL cholesterol can raise your risk of heart disease and stroke, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Keep You Feeling Energized and Satisfied

Munch on a serving of oats, and you'll score 28 grams of carbohydrates — a macronutrient that your body breaks down into glucose, which is the main energy source for your cells, tissues, and organs, according to the National Library of Medicine (NLM). And that's the exact reason carbs shouldn't be demonized, says Feller. "I think it's great for people to remember that they shouldn't cut grains out of their patterns of eating, especially a whole grain," she notes. "There are so many beneficial reasons to include them, and it's a great way to have nice, sustained energy from food," points out Feller.

Plus, the oats' fiber helps slow down digestion and causes a slower, more gradual rise in blood sugar, according to the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH). In turn, you'll feel satiated for longer and may not experience as great of a spike in blood sugar — or an energy crash later, according to the Cleveland Clinic.

Build and Repair Muscle

Oats may not be the first to come to mind when you think of protein-packed foods, but the whole grain shouldn't be overlooked. One serving provides 5 grams of the macronutrient (nearly 11 percent of the recommended daily allowance), which helps build and repair cells, tissue, and muscle as well as ensures proper growth and development.

That said, the protein in oats is incomplete, says Feller. Translation: It's lacking one or more of the nine essential amino acids, which can be obtained only from food, needed to make new protein in the body, according to the HSPH. Thankfully, though, you don't need to worry about falling short on your muscle-building goals. Plant-based folks can score all of the necessary amino acids — and develop those gains — by eating a variety of protein-filled plant foods, such as grains (including oats), fruits, veggies, nuts, and seeds, daily, notes the HSPH.

May Prevent Free Radical Damage

Aside from the vitamins and minerals you'd see listed on oats' nutrition facts label, the whole grain boasts a variety of phytochemicals — beneficial compounds found in most plant tissues, says Feller. With oats, in particular, these compounds are primarily found in the kernel's bran layer, and they have a high level of antioxidant activity, according to the Journal of Food Science and Technology research.

Reminder: Antioxidants are chemicals that neutralize harmful free radicals — unstable molecules that cause oxidative stress, which may then trigger cell damage — according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). "They help to reduce inflammation and stop the oxidation [caused by] free radical damage," adds Feller. Oats' potential ability to curb this oxidative stress is important too, as it's thought to play a role in the development of cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and other health conditions, per the NIH.

Potential Risks of Oats

As with all good things, there are a couple of caveats to note before adding oats to your grocery cart. Per the NLM, oats can cause gas and bloating, so start small and gradually up your intake if you're interested in adding oats to your diet.

Oats are also an allergen. An oat allergy is caused by a reaction to the avenin protein found in the grain, and the symptoms are similar to those you would have with a gluten allergy. Be on the lookout for allergic reactions if this is your first time trying oats. Usually, oat-induced allergy symptoms include hives or stomach cramps — but in rare cases, anaphylaxis can occur. Importantly, if you have a gluten intolerance, you could have an oat sensitivity as well, so be especially cautious if you have a known intolerance to the protein.

Speaking of gluten, while oats themselves are gluten-free, they are usually processed in facilities that also handle wheat, barley, and rye — all of which contain gluten. And though it's not a given that there will be cross-contamination, it's a possibility that the grains will come into contact if they're grown and processed near each other. So, if you have celiac disease or a gluten intolerance, your best bet is to opt for a brand of oats that specifies that it is gluten-free on the package.

How to Buy and Eat Oats

Ready to nab all the health benefits of oats? Before you fully stock your pantry, know that there are a few key differences between the various types of oats sitting on the supermarket shelf. Steel-cut oats are whole oat kernels that have been chopped into two to three smaller pieces, while rolled oats are whole kernels that have been steamed and rolled into flakes, according to the Whole Grains Council. Instant oats, on the other hand, are rolled oats that have been rolled thinner and/or steamed longer, per the Council. Each variety has a different texture and cooking time; steel-cut oats are generally chewy and cook in 20 to 30 minutes, rolled oats have a softer mouthfeel and cook in five to 10 minutes, and instant oats develop a somewhat mushy texture and cook in just a few minutes, according to Quaker's website.

That said, the nutritional difference between the various types of oats is "negligible," says Feller. "Everything shifts with processing and instant oats are slightly more refined so that they cook faster...It might have a tiny bit less fiber, but I would say to people: Find the oat that you enjoy, and that's what you want to buy," she suggests.

Simply put, your best bet to scoring all of the benefits of oats is to choose the variety that satisfies your growling stomach and your tastebuds, fits your budget, and can be whipped up in the amount of prep time you have to spare.

As for eating your oats, you can't go wrong with a classic bowl of oatmeal, but it's not the only dish you can make to get your fill of fiber, protein, and antioxidants. Steal these meal ideas to cop all the health benefits of oats, whether it be during breakfast, lunch, or dinner.

As a pilaf. Combine oats with quinoa and fonio, turmeric, black pepper, garlic, ginger, and onion to create a savory pilaf side dish that packs a punch of protein, recommends Feller.

As a warm porridge. Fuel your mornings by cooking oats in water, milk, or another liquid of your choice, then topping it with your favorite fixings, such as berries, nuts, honey, or maple syrup. You can also cook the oats with quinoa and fonio to create a three-grain breakfast with multiple textures, ensuring your morning is anything but boring, says Feller.

As a breadcrumb. To create a crispy crust on seafood, chicken, or mac 'n' cheese, ditch the bread in favor of seasoned oats, suggests Feller.

As a flour. Grind some oats in a blender or food processor, and you're left with oat flour that can be used in pancakes, bread, waffles, muffins, bagels, and just about any other baked good you can imagine, says Feller. (BTW, you'll also want to make the baked oatmeal that went viral on TikTok.)

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