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The Scoop on Oatmeal

By Marni Sumbal

oats instoryI love oats. I find myself getting creative with oatmeal and not just eating it for breakfast, and I typically use instant oats and add in fruits, raisins and nuts. I've never used steel cut oats but I'm always open to trying new things. Although any food that undergoes processing will be lower in certain vitamins and minerals than a highly processed food, I am not suggesting that you have to use steel cut oats over instant.

For most of us, we choose from three different types of oatmeal. While oats provide a number of health benefits, some kinds of oatmeal are better than others.

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For every type, the oats first undergo cleaning, hulling, and conditioning, which removes the outer shell (called a hull), leaving the inner kernel or oat groat. The groat is then brushed clean in scouring machines. Next, a kiln heats the groats to about 215 degrees Fahrenheit to deactivate their enzymes, which limits how the oils present in the germ can react with oxygen, making the oats stable for storage. Chelsea Lincoln, a representative from Bob’s Red Mill Natural Foods, says this is important because “oats go rancid very quickly if not stabilized.”

Depending on the type of oatmeal being made, whole oat groats are processed differently:

  • Steel cut oats: groats are chopped up with steel blades and then ground. From there, you can cook steel cut oats for 20-30 minutes to create a soft and creamy oatmeal.
  • Rolled or old-fashioned oats: whole oats are rolled flat.
  • Quick oats: rolled oats are ground up a bit, creating a quicker cooking oat.
  • Packaged oatmeal: quick or roller oats but typically high in sugar and additives.

As far as steel cut oats versus rolled oats, a serving for steel cut oats is 1/4 cup. Because they are denser than rolled oats, you will notice that rolled oats have a serving size of 1/2 cup. It’s the same amount of oats in weight, but not volume, since a rolled oat takes up more space. The steel cut oats will also expand more when cooked since they will absorb more water than the rolled oats.

Quick oats take around 1 minute to cook, rolled oats take between 90 seconds to 3 minutes and steel cut oats can take up to 20 minutes.

Here's the nutrition breakdown:

1/4 cup of Quaker steel cut oats

Calories – 150
Fat – 2.5g
Carbs – 27g
Fiber – 4g
Sugar – 1g
Protein – 5g

1/2 cup of Quaker old fashioned oats and quick oats

Calories – 150
Fat – 3g
Carbs – 27g
Fiber – 4g
Sugar – 1g
Protein – 5g

While all oats offer countless health benefits due to the insoluble and soluble fibers found in oatmeal (ex. reducing LDL cholesterol, slows down digestion, good source of nutrients) it is important that you compare labels on your oatmeal in order to opt for the lowest sugar content for your oatmeal pick.

Even though I feel that people should reduce the amount of processed food in the diet, especially foods high in sugar, sodium and fat, I believe that packaged instant oatmeal is a much better choice than no breakfast, a vending machine snack or an enriched/simple sugar breakfast (donuts, bagels, muffins). Some instant oats, such as low-sugar oatmeal, provide a lower sugar alternative, but you always need to read the label to know exactly what you are getting (focus on the first five ingredients, plus fiber, sugar and calories per serving when comparing oatmeal). Also, because many of us (myself included) enjoy oatmeal before a long workout, it is likely that you will be preparing packaged oatmeal in your hotel microwave or coffee maker (gotta be creative) on race day in an effort to not have to wake up at 3 a.m. to prepare your steel cut oats before your race.

My suggestion is to use plain rolled oats and add in your own fruits (dried or fresh), nuts/seeds, flavors (brown sugar, honey, agave nectar) and protein (peanut butter, protein powder, milk, yogurt) to make a healthy and delicious morning oatmeal. Oatmeal can be a great breakfast on a daily basis and if you don't feel like having 1/2 cup oats every day of the week you can decrease the serving size and add in a whey protein smoothie, yogurt or egg omelet to your morning oatmeal.

You don't have to always use 1/2 cup serving for your oats. While 150 calories is certainly not a lot of calories for your morning meal/pre-training snack, I recommend adding in a little protein and fat to your oatmeal to help you fill up on a more balanced meal. Rather than starting with 150 calories and adding in a banana, PB, raisins and nuts to bring you close to 350 calories before a 2-hour ride, start with 1/4 cup oats in an effort to not overdo it on calories before a morning workout.

The key to fueling before a workout is to keep blood sugar stable and prevent you from feeling hungry. With a well-balanced diet and proper recovery nutrition, your muscles will be stocked with fuel and you won't be relying on your pre-training snack for immediate fuel.

If you are choosing oatmeal for your pre-training snack or afternoon snack, you can use the following serving sizes as a starting point:

1/4 cup oats - 75 calories
1/3 cup oats - 100 calories
1/2 cup oats - 150 calories

Here are some of my favorites to add to oatmeal:

  • Flax seed
  • Nuts (almonds, walnuts, peanuts)
  • Seeds (sunflower seeds)
  • Granola/dry cereal (as a topping)
  • Honey
  • Yogurt
  • Whey protein powder (add after the oatmeal is fully cooked)
  • Milk
  • Cinnamon/all-spice
  • Light brown sugar
  • Greek yogurt
  • Fruit (apples, peaches, strawberries, banana, apricot, blueberries)
  • Raisins/cranberries
  • Dark Chocolate (a few chocolate chips or a small piece of bar dark chocolate before cooking)

Other uses for oatmeal:

  • Topping on salads
  • Topping for yogurt
  • Mix with fruit
  • Add in batters (muffins, pancakes, breads)
  • Mix w/ or in place of bread crumbs for breading/crusts of meats/fish
  • Binding agent in vegetarian loafs/stir-fries/burgers

Do you have a favorite oatmeal concoction? I'd love to hear how you eat your oats — visit the USA Triathlon forums to share your best oatmeal mix!

Marni Sumbal, MS, RD, is a Certified Sports Nutritionist (CISSN) and holds a certification by the American Dietetic Association in Adult Weight Management. She is a USA Triathlon Level I Certified Coach, Ironman finisher and an Oakley Women ambassador, and she has contributed articles to a number of triathlon organizations, such as Lava Magazine, Triathlete Magazine, and To contact Marni, email, visit or become a fan of TriMarni Coaching and Nutrition on Facebook.

The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and not necessarily the practices of USA Triathlon. Before starting any new diet or exercise program, you should check with your physician and/or coach.