Oatmeal is a delicious and healthy breakfast staple and you can easily get it at nearly every coffee place and fast food joint. And why not? It’s quick to make, tasty, comforting and inexpensive. And since it’s viewed as a health food, it’s a pretty easy sell. But looking at the nutritional value of some available oatmeal products, oatmeal’s health halo is getting a tad tarnished.
Oatmeal’s reputation as a healthy food got a big boost about 20 years ago, when studies began demonstrating that oats (specifically the bran) could help lower blood cholesterol levels. In response, food manufacturers began trotting out oat bran-laden garlic bread and brownies, and oat bran-dusted potato chips and donuts.
A dash of oat bran tossed into a muffin certainly doesn’t transform it into a health food, but that’s how the health halo works. “If it’s made with oats, it must be healthy.” Plain oatmeal is one thing, but load it up with sweeteners, jam, sugar-coated nuts and banana chips and you’re veering off the path of healthy eating.
So, here’s the rub. Cook up some steel-cut oats or some rolled oats at home, and you’ve got yourself a healthy whole-grain breakfast for only about 150 calories per serving. Even with a dash of honey and some chopped fresh fruit, you’re still looking at around 250 calories for an average bowl.
A packet of flavored instant oatmeal racks up about the same calories, but it has 12 times the sugar of the plain rolled oats. And the portions are tiny––most people I talk to usually eat two packets at a time. So, now you’ve got twice the calories and 24 times the sugar of the plain grain.
And now that the fast food places and coffee houses have jumped into the fray, it’s buyer beware.
It’s the add-ins that do you in—the granola crumble, the sugary nuts, the jam, the banana chips. A tablespoon of brown sugar will set you back 50 calories (and believe me, most people add a lot more than a tablespoon). A sprinkle of dried fruit or nuts can cost another 100 or so—and suddenly there are more calories on top of the cereal than in the cereal itself. The oatmeal offered at one chain is topped with dried fruit, honey-roasted almonds and strawberry compote (ahem, jam) to the tune of 470 calories and 10 grams of fat. You may as well have a burger and a medium-sized soda for breakfast.
To be fair, not all the oatmeal offerings are off the charts. And most are certainly better than some of the other fast food breakfast fare out there (sausages dipped in fried pancake batter, anyone?).
If you’re going to pick up some oatmeal rather than make it yourself, pay attention to the nutritional facts— especially if you’re going to couple that oatmeal with a calorie-laden coffee drink. And don’t add insult to injury by adding more sugar and cream from the condiment bar.
Also, take a lesson from those who’ve learned that “just a coffee and a muffin” can set them back as much as 800 calories. Unless you’re careful, “just a coffee and some oatmeal” could do just as much damage.