Yes, Virginia, the folks who brought you the 740 calorie, 42 grams of fat, "Double Quarter Pounder with Cheese" are attempting to woo the health conscious with salads, yogurt parfaits and yes, even oatmeal. Starbucks, too, has added an oatmeal cup to their menu (previously made up almost entirely of pastries made of refined white flour and sugar.)
Oatmeal is a great breakfast choice for those who are trying to “eat clean” and its complex carbohydrates stay with you for a long time, making it a healthy, filling option for the first meal of the day.
But beware…not all oats are created equal, and what you put in your oatmeal can make the difference between a healthy start and a fat loaded, sugar-laden bowl of carbs that isn’t much better than a glazed donut.
Types of Oats
There are several types of oats available at your supermarket and choosing the right one might seem confusing at first, but it’s actually quite simple. While steel-cut oats are the tastiest and chewiest, they take a long time to cook. I love them, but tend to eat them only on the weekend when I have a half an hour to cook them. My favorite way to prepare it is with chunks of peeled apple added to the oats while they’re cooking.
Rolled oats, quick oats and instant oats cook faster, and while there has been much debate about their nutritional value compared to steel-cut, the fact is that all oats are pretty similar nutritionally. In fact, even instant oatmeal has about the same nutritional profile as rolled oats and steel-cut (Scottish) oats. Be careful to choose the “plain” or “original” versions of instant oats, as the flavored versions are loaded with sugar.
Unsweetened, instant oatmeal has a glycemic load of 17 versus 13 for regular oats. The scale goes from 1-50 — with pure glucose having a glycemic load of 50. To provide some perspective, brown rice — that staple of clean eating — has a GL of 18 and whole sweet potatoes (another bodybuilding favorite) have a GL of 17: In other words, on par with instant oatmeal. So even with its slightly higher GL, it’s still a good option for a healthy breakfast and way better than reaching for a bagel or a muffin.
But rolled oats have a better texture and flavor than instant, in my opinion, and they take just 4 minutes in the microwave. That’s less time than it takes to boil water for instant oats.
Power Up Your Oats
All oats contain about 27 grams of carbs, about 5 grams of fiber and 5 grams of protein. And although the glycemic load of all forms of oats is relatively low, many diabetics find it causes a spike in their blood sugar. When I was monitoring my blood glucose levels during my last pregnancy, I found oats often raised my glucose levels significantly.
The solution is simple, and this trick works with ALL carbs. Just add a protein, or a “good fat” (mono-saturated) to your carbs. That’s often as simple as snacking on a cheese stick with your apple or crackers. The addition of protein and fat slows the conversion of carbs to glucose, lowering the glycemic load of the carbohydrate. Protein also means your oatmeal will keep you feeling satisfied longer.
So instead of making your oats with water, make them with skim milk. You’ll add a little naturally occurring milk sugar, but you’ll also up the protein and the calcium significantly. Another strategy is to add an egg or an egg white to the milk for even more protein. Some chopped nuts will add some more “good fat” (and a few calories). Flax seed meal is also tasty sprinkled on top of oatmeal, adding Omega 3 fats and some fiber.
How Sweet it Isn’t
Now you have this highly nutritious, protein-packed bowl of oats…but it tastes, well, like wallpaper paste. So unless you can manage to choke it down unsweetened, you’re going to have to add something for sweetness.
First, remember to add a pinch of salt to your oatmeal when you’re cooking it. The presence of the salt will actually boost the effect of any sweetener you add, by rounding out the flavor profile. As a chef once told me, “It’s not ‘salt to taste’, it’s ‘salt to taste everything else.’” (Note that some instant oats are already salted so please read the label.)
Fruit (berries, bananas) mixed in while cooking is one way to add fiber and sweetness to your oats. Even in the dead of winter, frozen berries are a great oatmeal addition.
Agave nectar, a natural sweetener with a glycemic load that is significantly lower than nearly every other type of sugar, has a great flavor and a small amount adds a lot of sweetness. And although I know many of you avoid artificial sweeteners, there is no scientifically-valid evidence that Splenda (sucralose) is harmful in any way, and I use it in moderation. A teaspoon in your oatmeal should suffice. Stevia, a naturally-derived herbal sweetener is also a great option, although some people find the after-taste unpleasant.
Finally, don’t forget the cinnamon. A sprinkling of good quality cinnamon not only adds flavor, it can actually help lower your blood sugar. I love the cinnamons from Penzey’s Spices (www.penzeys.com); they sell several varieties and all are exceptionally fresh and fragrant.
Sara’s Power Oatmeal (1 very large serving or 2 medium servings)
½ cup rolled oats (not instant)
8 oz. milk
Pinch of kosher salt or sea salt
1 egg, beaten or 1 egg white (or the equivalent in liquid eggs such as eggbeaters or liquid egg whites)
1 tsp. cinnamon
Sweetener of choice or ½ cup fresh fruit or frozen fruit (thawed)
•Place oats, salt and 6 oz of the milk in a large, shallow bowl (large enough that when the oatmeal bubbles in the microwave it won’t boil over). Microwave on high for about 2 minutes or until the mixture begins to expand and bubble up.
•Stir the egg into the remaining milk, add to the oatmeal, stir well. Sweeten as desired and if you’re adding fruit, add it now.
•Microwave on high for another minute and a half or so. Stir. Sprinkle with cinnamon.
•According to the package, ½ cup uncooked oats makes one serving. I find that when I cook it this way, it’s actually enough for two, especially if you’ve added fruit.
•Finally, a few chopped nuts or a couple teaspoons of flaxseed meal on top, and you have a powerhouse breakfast in under 5 minutes.
Back to the Drive-Thru…
So what about that oatmeal at McDonald’s? It’s served with fresh fruit…fantastic. But the second ingredient on list is brown sugar. No, they don’t give you the option of leaving out the sugar, it’s already mixed in with the oats. So it starts at 14 grams of sugar, and if you add the cranberry raisin blend to it, you add another 15 grams. Pouring on the light cream adds 20 calories (15 from fat).
So your total “healthy” oatmeal breakfast delivers a whopping 290 calories, 4.5 grams of fat and a frightening 42 grams of sugar! That’s not breakfast, that’s dessert.
If I’m going to splurge on that kind of sugary breakfast, I’ll take a hot Krispy Kreme glazed donut, right off the line, for 200 calories and 10 grams of sugar.
Ok, not really…but you get the point.
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Nutrition Info for Sara's Power Oats
(per serving - serving size 1/2 the recipe, using Splenda or Stevia, without fruit)
Calories 126.4; Total Fat 1.5 g; Cholesterol 2.5 mg; Sodium 152.0 mg; Total Carbohydrate 31.9 g ; Dietary Fiber 4.1 g; Sugars 0.0 g; Protein 9.2 g