Start your day with healthy oatmeal

Oatmeal is a nutritious, inexpensive and versatile option to work in some whole grains and help you start your morning off right.

Oats made history when they became the first food with a Food and Drug Administration health claim label in 1997. The health claim was related to heart health and showed intake of whole oat products decreased blood cholesterol levels.

Oats contain a type of soluble fiber, called beta glucan, which lowers blood glucose and cholesterol levels, thus reducing risk of heart disease and diabetes. Beta glucan also promotes healthy gut bacteria and intestinal health.

Eating oatmeal regularly can have weight management benefits as a half-cup of rolled oats cooked in a cup of water has 165 calories, 4 grams of fiber and 6 grams of protein. The fiber and protein content contribute to feeling full longer and a slower blood glucose release. Oats also are an excellent source of many vitamins and minerals, including magnesium, copper, thiamine and zinc.

You may see a few different kinds of oats in the grocery store, including steel-cut, rolled, quick or instant. Steel-cut oats, also called Irish oatmeal, are the whole oat kernel that has been cut into two or three pieces using steel disks. This type of oats contains the highest amount of fiber, as it is least processed. Steel-cut oats take a little longer to cook, and result in a creamy and chewy porridge. Steel-cut oats can be made in a slow cooker, making the process less hands-on.

Rolled oats, or regular oats, are rolled flat to make them easier to cook. Most of the bran is removed, so they have slightly less fiber than steel-cut oats, but they take less time to cook.

Quick oats are rolled oats that have been rolled thinner and cut into small pieces, so they cook even faster.

Instant oats come in single-serve packets that are typically flavored, and can be added to hot water or cooked in the microwave in minutes. While instant oats cook the fastest, they usually have quite a bit of added sugar and less fiber than other types of oats.

Oats have a nice flavor on their own, but if you're tired of plain oatmeal here are a few ideas to try:

  • Baked oatmeal results in an oat cakelike texture and is a great way to take care of a week's worth of breakfasts at once.
  • Overnight oats usually mean mixing rolled or quick oats with some type of milk and yogurt, and leaving in the fridge overnight. This results in a creamy refreshing oatmeal mixture.
  • Oats are also a good way to make your morning smoothie more filling. Add 1/4 to 1/2 cup rolled oats to your blender first and grind until fine. Then add the rest of your smoothie ingredients as usual. It produces a thicker smoothie that has the staying power of oatmeal.

With these preparation methods, you have many options to play with the flavor. Fruit, raisins and nuts are popular.

Here are some other ideas to play with:

  • For flavor and texture, try unsweetened coconut, chopped cashews or sliced almonds.
  • For natural sweetness, add chopped dates, dried cranberries or applesauce.
  • Increase the protein with pumpkin seeds, a swirl of nut butter or a dollop of Greek yogurt.
  • Up the soluble fiber even more with chia seeds or ground flax.
  • Instead of plain cinnamon, add a couple pinches of pumpkin pie spice.
  • If you're feeling indulgent, add a couple drops of vanilla extract and peanut butter for a peanut butter cookie flavor, or vanilla extract, cocoa powder and a ripe banana for chocolate oatmeal.
Try these recipes to get you started:
BAKED OATMEAL

Servings: 8

Dietitian's tip: You can mix this in the evening and refrigerate it overnight. Just pop it in the oven first thing when you get up.

1 tablespoon canola oil
½ cup unsweetened applesauce
⅓ cup brown sugar
Egg substitute equivalent to 2 eggs, or 4 egg whites
3 cups uncooked rolled oats
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 cup skim milk
1 cup fresh or frozen blueberries

In a good-sized bowl, stir together the oil, applesauce, sugar and eggs. Add the dry ingredients and milk. Mix well. Spray a 9-by-13-inch baking pan generously with cooking spray. Spoon oatmeal mixture into pan. Sprinkle blueberries evenly over the oatmeal. Bake uncovered at 350 F for 30 minutes. Serve with toppings of your choice from the ideas above.

Nutritional information per ¾-cup serving: 205 calories; 4 g fat (0.5 g saturated fat); 105 mg sodium; 36 g carbohydrate; 3 g fiber; 7 g protein.
(Adapted from mayoclinic.org)

BAKLAVA OATMEAL

Servings: 2

1 cup rolled oats
2 cups water
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 tablespoon orange zest
2 tablespoons honey
2 tablespoons almonds, sliced or chopped

In a small pot, add all ingredients, except the almonds. Place the pot on medium-high heat, just until the water comes to a boil. Immediately turn the heat to low and place a lid on the pot. Cook for 5 minutes, until the oats are soft and tender, and most of the water has cooked off. Portion into two bowls and top with nuts.

Nutritional information per 1 cup serving: 255 calories; 6 g fat; (less than 1 g saturated fat); 10 mg sodium); 47 g carbohydrate; 6 g fiber; 6 g protein.

CARROT CAKE OVERNIGHT OATS

Servings: 1

Dietitian's tip: This oatmeal is loaded with calcium, protein, fiber and vitamin A. Chia seeds are high in heart-healthy soluble fiber and omega-3 fatty acids. Both oats and chia seeds provide soluble fiber, which lowers cholesterol levels. The small amount of carrots in this recipe provides 100% of your vitamin A for the day, and is good for your eyes and immune system.

½ cup rolled oats
⅔ cup skim milk
⅓ cup plain, nonfat Greek yogurt
¼ cup finely grated carrot
1½ teaspoons chia seeds
2 teaspoons maple syrup
½ teaspoon cinnamon
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
1 tablespoon pecans, chopped
1 tablespoon shredded coconut, unsweetened

Mix all ingredients, except for the pecans and coconut, in a bowl or Mason jar. Top with pecans and coconuts, and cover with a lid. Refrigerate overnight and eat chilled.

Nutritional information: 395 calories; 12 g fat; (3 g saturated fat); 135 mg sodium; 55 g carbohydrate; 9 g fiber; 21 g protein; 100% daily value vitamin A; 36% daily value calcium.

Romi Londre is a dietitian in clinical Nutrition in La Crosse, Wisconsin.


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