Oatmeal is delicious, comforting and has some serious evidence-backed health benefits.

Christine Byrne
November 12, 2020
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Oatmeal is a simple, inexpensive breakfast staple that's easy to customize with various toppings and mix-ins. Using steel-cut oats makes for a particularly hearty and satisfying bowl of oatmeal, since they are less processed and a little more flavorful than rolled or instant oats. (Get our tips for making any kind of oatmeal better.)

While you're probably heard that oatmeal is good for you, you might not realize just how many health benefits of steel-cut oats there really are. Here's more about the nutrition of steel-cut oats and why they're such a great choice.

Steel-cut oats versus rolled or instant oats

If you've ever tried steel-cut oats, you know that they don't look anything like old-fashioned or instant oats. While rolled oats and instant oats look like soft, light flakes, steel-cut oats look more like tiny beige pellets. But while they look very different, these three types of oats are more similar than you might think. "All oats, whether they are steel-cut, quick or old-fashioned, are from the same oat groat," says Jule Upton, M.S., R.D., cofounder of Appetite for Health. To make steel-cut oats, the groats are roasted to make them more shelf-stable, then chopped into pieces. To make old-fashioned oats (AKA rolled oats), the groats are steamed to make them soft, then "rolled" and flattened. To make instant oats, rolled oats are steamed, dried, and flattened again.

The major differences between the three types of oats are cooking time and texture. Instant oats take about a minute to cook on the stovetop or microwave and have a slightly mushy texture. Old-fashioned oats take about five minutes on the stovetop and have a bit more bite. Steel-cut oats take about 30 minutes on the stovetop and have a chewy, nutty texture.

Steel-cut oats nutrition facts

Steel cut oats are high in both soluble and insoluble fiber. They also contain some plant-based protein and iron. Here are the nutrition facts for one ¼ cup serving of uncooked steel cut oats.

Calories: 170

Total Fat: 2.5g

Saturated Fat: 0.5g

Trans Fat: 0g

Cholesterol: 0mg

Sodium: 0mg

Total Carbohydrates: 31g

Dietary Fiber: 5g

Sugars: 1g

Protein: 5g

Iron: 2mg

Potassium: 162mg

Upton explains that steel-cut oats have roughly the same nutrition profile as old-fashioned or instant oats, since they're all made from the same oat groat. While some people think that old-fashioned and instant oats have less fiber than steel cut oats, this isn't true—all three types have the same amount of fiber per serving. However, steel cut oats are denser because they haven't been steamed and flattened. So, one serving of steel cut oats is ¼ cup dry, while one serving of old-fashioned or instant oats is ½ cup dry.

One thing to keep in mind about oats is that while they're naturally gluten-free, many brands contain trace amounts of gluten due to cross-contamination. If you're on a strict gluten-free diet, look for steel cut oats that are labeled "gluten-free."

Health benefits of steel cut oats

Heart health

"Oats are proven to help lower harmful LDL cholesterol levels in the blood," Upton says. "Decades worth of research shows that they are effective at improving cholesterol levels." This is thanks to a soluble fiber called beta-glucan, which turns into a gel-like substance when mixed with water. Research also suggests that the soluble fiber in oats could help lower blood pressure, although this effect isn't as clearly understood.

This is all great news for heart health. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), keeping your blood pressure and cholesterol levels within the healthy range can significantly reduce your risk of heart disease, heart attack, and stroke. (Here's more information on the best and worst foods to eat for your heart.)

Diabetes management

There's tons of research to prove that eating plenty of fiber can help with blood sugar control and promote healthy cholesterol levels in patients with type 2 diabetes. Oats, including steel-cut oats, may be particularly good for this. Beta-glucan, a type of soluble fiber found in oats, has been shown to prevent blood sugar spikes after a meal by improving insulin sensitivity. Pair your steel-cut oatmeal with some protein, like cottage cheese, peanut butter or an egg, to enjoy a more balanced breakfast (learn more about how to enjoy oatmeal when you have diabetes).

Satiety

If you eat steel-cut oats (or other types of oats) often, you may have noticed that they keep you full for hours. Again, that's thanks to beta-glucan, a type of soluble fiber and a true all-star when it comes to nutrition. Research shows that beta-glucan can help you feel full for longer because it binds with water in your stomach and fills you up (literally!) by increasing in volume. One small study even found that people who ate a bowl of oatmeal made with milk for breakfast stayed full for longer and ate fewer calories over the course of the day than people who ate a bowl of Honey Nut Cheerios and milk with exactly the same number of calories.

Relieving and preventing constipation

If you're feeling a little blocked up down there, adding steel cut oatmeal to your daily routine could help. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGAs) recommend that adults get 25 to 31 grams of fiber each day. In addition to the benefits listed above, the 5 grams of fiber in one serving of steel-cut oats can help prevent or relieve constipation. Just make sure to drink plenty of water as well, since water binds with soluble fiber and makes your stool softer and easier to pass. (Try these 8 foods to help you poop.)

How to cook steel-cut oats

To cook steel-cut oats on the stovetop, bring one cup of milk or water to a boil, then add ¼ cup of oats and simmer everything for 20 to 30 minutes with sweetener and spices.

If you don't want to wait so long for breakfast in the morning, you can also cook steel-cut oats overnight. "My absolute favorite way is to cook up steel-cut oats in my rice cooker so that they are ready when I wake up," Upton says. "I also put dried fruit with them so the fruit adds some nice added texture and sweetness. I then top my bowl of oats with some fresh or frozen fruit and plain nonfat Greek yogurt for an additional pop of protein." You can also cook steel-cut oats overnight in a slow cooker or Instant Pot.

Bottom line

Steel-cut oats have several amazing health benefits. They boost heart health by lowering LDL (bad) cholesterol and blood pressure, help with diabetes management and blood sugar control, keep you feeling full for longer, and can prevent or relieve constipation. While old-fashioned and instant oats offer the same health benefits, steel-cut oats have a dense texture and nutty flavor that some people find more satisfying. If you want steel-cut oatmeal that's ready as soon as you wake up, prepare it in a slow cooker overnight.