Which oats are healthy? The answer is, almost all of them. But you’re probably wondering which oats are healthiest. The short answer is that the least processed oats are the most healthy. But when I did the calculations for exactly how much difference the processing makes, I admit that I was surprised by the results!
Oats are a whole grain that are mostly eaten by horses, at least in their unprocessed state. They get processed for us picky humans. Some oats are more processed than others, which results in the different types!
The processing continuum that will help us see which oats are healthy goes like this.
- whole grain oats – horse food. You’re unlikely to find these in grocery stores.
- steel cut oats – made by cutting whole oats into two or three pieces
- rolled/regular/old-fashioned oats – made by steaming whole oats and rolling them into flakes
- quick cooking oats – these are regular oats, but rolled out thinner, so they’re faster to prepare
- instant oats – cut oats that are rolled very thin, cooked, dried, and have had sugar and salt added
So what happens when oats are processed along this continuum from whole grain horse food to ultra processed? They keep roughly the same macronutrients (carbs, fat, protein), so chemically speaking they are the same, which is what the nutrition label will show. But the physical properties of the oats change, which means our bodies will digest and absorb the food differently.
glycemic index is the key
When you eat oats, your body releases enzymes to break them down into simple sugars. Your body then absorbs these sugars into the bloodstream. This breakdown of starches can happen fast or slow, depending on various factors. It’s easier for your body to handle sugars at a slow, steady rate.
The glycemic index tells us how fast the food breaks down into sugar. A lower number means that the food takes longer to breakdown and enter the blood, which is good! A higher number means that this food can cause a blood sugar spike, which is… not good. The glycemic index is the most important factor that will tell us which oats are healthiest.
Anything under 55 is considered low. Anything over 71 is high.
which oats are healthy?
When I finally sat down to look at the numbers, I figured I already knew the answer about which oats are healthy. I was expecting there to be a marked difference between the steel cut oats, the old-fashioned, and the quick cooking. I thought the more processed oats would have a much higher glycemic index. But the numbers show that the difference is actually fairly small, at least between steel cut oats and quick cooking oats.
This is a case of good, better, best. If you wanted to have the absolute healthiest oats, then steel cut is the way to go. But, since rolled oats and quick cooking oats are generally:
- Much more accessible (found ubiquitously in nearly any grocery store)
- Less expensive
… you really are not making much of a concession in choosing them!
Instant packets, on the other hand, I would generally avoid. If you want something quick in the morning, or something to keep at work to make easily with hot water from a kettle, try these homemade instant packs! They’re low in sugar and salt, but high in flavour!
So, if you’ve been snooting your nose up with your steel cut oats, you don’t really have much to brag about. If you enjoy them, go ahead! I recently tried them for the first time and I was pleasantly surprised! I really, really enjoyed the texture! They retain some of their chewiness, even after cooking, and this was a delight to my senses! Check out this guide for cooking them in the Instant Pot (takes about 20-25 minutes total time) and this recipe for easy overnight steel cut oats!
Which types of oats are YOUR favourite? After reading this article do you think you’ll stick with them or switch? Hit me up in the comments with your answers!
p.s. here are some other articles that may interest you….
- are veggie straws healthy?
- which milk or vegan alternative is best for you and your family?
- how to shop for a granola bar (+ my top 5 picks!)
- is powdered peanut butter a good choice?