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.
Susan is the Sr. Director of Worldwide Nutrition Education and Training at Herbalife, where she is responsible for the development of nutrition education and training materials, and is one of the primary authors of the Herbalife-sponsored blog, www.discovergoodnutrition.com. She is a Registered Dietitian and holds two Board Certifications from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics as a Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics, and a Certified Specialist in Obesity and Weight Management. Susan is also a Fellow of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
Susan graduated with distinction in biology from the University of Colorado, and received her master’s degree in Food Science and Nutrition from Colorado State University. She then completed her dietetic internship at the University of Kansas. Susan has taught extensively and developed educational programs targeted to individuals, groups and industry in her areas of expertise, including health promotion, weight management and sports nutrition.
Prior to her role at Herbalife, she was the assistant director of the UCLA Center for Human Nutrition, and has held appointments as adjunct professor in nutrition at Pepperdine University and as lecturer in nutrition in the Department of Food Science and Nutrition at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo.
Susan was a consultant to the (then) Los Angeles Raiders for six seasons, and was a contributing columnist for the Los Angeles Times Health Section for two years. She is a co-author of 23 research papers, 14 book chapters, and was a co-author of two books for the public: “What Color is Your Diet?” and “The L.A. Shape Diet” by Dr. David Heber, published by Harper Collins in 2001 and 2004, respectively.