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Tuck away oatmeal to ward off winter chill

As a child, I began most winter school-day mornings with a bowl of steaming oatmeal topped with a sprinkle of brown sugar and milk. I imagine my mother felt better sending her youngsters out into a cold January morning knowing there was a substantial breakfast tucked away to ward off the chill.

As time has borne out, my mother was doing exactly the right thing. Nutritionists today rate hot oatmeal as one of the top breakfast foods. It is filling, indeed, but also highly nutritious, containing complex carbohydrates, fibre and a host of vitamins and minerals.

It needs to be clarified immediately that the main difference among the various types of oatmeal you find in stores is in how it is processed. Nutrient content is almost exactly the same in all types. Most common are “rolled oats” which, in turn, come in instant, quick cooking and old-fashioned or slow cooking varieties—all have been steamed and rolled to a certain thickness which determines cooking time. Steel-cut oats have been chopped instead of rolled and thus are coarser than the other types and require longer cooking (about 30 minutes). Some believe steel-cut oatmeal have a nutritional edge, but if so, it is very slight. It may be preferred because of it chewy texture and nutty flavour.

Retains the bran

Be assured that whatever variety of oatmeal you choose, it retains the bran, germ and endosperm (often milled out during processing other grains) which makes it a storehouse of nutrients. Whole grain oats contain B vitamins and vitamin E in addition to iron and zinc, and is a very good source of manganese, a trace mineral which helps the body utilize vitamins, keeps bones strong and assists with the synthesis of cholesterol.

While oats have much in common with other cereal grains, they contain several unique health benefits which may be a good reason to include a bowl of hot oatmeal regularly in the diet. Like other grains, oatmeal is high in complex carbohydrates which means it’s a good source of dietary fibre, instrumental in maintaining a healthy digestive system and helping to lower blood cholesterol. However, oats contain a specific type of soluble fibre known as beta glucan, which has been shown to be particularly effective in lowering serum cholesterol which reduces the risk of developing heart disease. 

Studies show that beta glucan also has beneficial effects on blood sugar, that is, it mitigates blood sugar spikes by lowering the glycemic response to a meal. This is good news for people dealing with Type 2 diabetes, or borderline hyperglycemia. Thirdly, it has been observed that beta glucan significantly enhances human immune system’s response to bacterial infection—that is, it not only helps immune cells navigate to the site of infection, but also increases ability to eliminate bacteria found there.

Protecting the cardiovascular system

In addition to fibre benefits, oats are a good source of antioxidants which are known for protecting the cardiovascular system. Antioxidant compounds unique to oats are known as avenanthramides—they help prevent free radicals from damaging LDL  (or “bad”) cholesterol which prevents it from becoming highly reactive and damaging blood vessel walls. It is interesting to note that vitamin C (a more common antioxidant) extends the delay of LDL oxidation which means having a glass or orange juice with your morning oatmeal makes nutritional sense.

While oatmeal in the form of porridge is perhaps the most common way we use the cereal grain (sometimes enhanced with fresh or dried fruits), it doesn’t stop there. Oatmeal is the predominant ingredient in granola, also a healthy breakfast food; you might consider making your own to control sugar and fat content. Oatmeal is also sometimes used as a filler in hamburgers or meatballs. And definitely as far as sweet treats are concerned, it doesn’t get much better than an oatmeal cookie.

If you have an allergy to gluten—a  protein found in select grains—look for gluten-free oats. While the gluten in oats can be tolerated by some people with a slight sensitivity, there is sometimes a problem with cross contamination when other grains have been processed in the same mill. Note that organic oatmeal is also available.