Are Oatmeal and Granolas Healthy?

Oatmeal and granola are popular foods in the health and wellness world, but not all oatmeals and granolas are created equal. Marketing these days makes it difficult to determine what is truly “healthy” vs “unhealthy.” In this article we are diving into all things oats and granola and what our registered dietitians consider healthy.

Components of Oatmeal and Granola

Both oatmeal and granola are great sources of carbohydrates. Carbohydrates come in many forms like fiber, starches and sugars! No matter the type, carbs are essential nutrients that your body utilizes to give you energy. There are both complex and simple carbohydrates; complex carbs in fruits, vegetables and whole-grain products are less likely to spike blood sugar than simple carbs, which are quickly used by the body for energy. The difference between the two are that complexed carbs provide sustained energy for the body whereas simple carbohydrates are used rapidly, which is known as a “sugar high”. 

Most granolas are mainly composed of rolled oats, nuts or seeds and a sweetener. Rolled oats make up the carbohydrates, nuts and seeds are both great sources of healthy fats and protein! Lastly, sweeteners are normally added to enhance the taste. 

Oatmeals can either be purchased in their raw form as rolled, old fashioned, or steel-cut. The raw form of oatmeal is  typically a healthier option because it contains simple ingredients and you get to control the add-in’s and toppings. Instant oatmeal is another option you can purchase at most grocery stores. These packets are easy to make and normally come with sweeteners and flavors added in so there is less control over what goes into it. 

Oats found in both oatmeal and granola can also be great sources of fiber, specifically soluble fiber. Soluble fiber is not only good for your digestive health, but it can even reduce your levels of “bad” cholesterol or LDL. 

Granola can contain many ingredients including oats. Some other ingredients might be seeds, dried fruit, or chocolate. Because of the use of dried fruits and chocolate in granola, granola is oftentimes high in both natural and added sugars. This is something to watch out for when purchasing granola. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends making less than 10% of total calories each day from added sugars.

Health Benefits of Oatmeal and Granola

Beyond being great sources for complex carbohydrates, oats and granola provide additional vital nutrients for the body. They are a great source of:

  • Fiber (insoluble and soluble)
  • Phosphorus
  • Thiamine
  • Magnesium
  • Zinc 

Additionally, they’ve have been shown to help slow digestion, increase satiety, and suppress appetite! Oats and granola also possess antioxidant properties! Certain components of whole grains and oats can act as antioxidants to reduce the effects of chronic inflammation and to reduce risk of certain diseases. Oats a whole, whether in the form of granola or another food, are considered positives for gut health.

What makes them “unhealthy”

Although oatmeal and granola can be a great source of complex carbohydrates and fiber, they can contain high levels of preservatives and added sugars.e

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends limiting calories from added sugars to no more than 10% each day. In other terms, that's 200 calories, or about 12 teaspoons, for a 2,000 calorie diet. Added sugars can be hidden from consumers in a lot of products and granola/instant oatmeal are some examples. A good way to limit added sugars is to look for natural sources of food or use fruit or honey as a natural sweetener. 

Consuming granolas or instant oatmeals with loads of added sugars can “cancel out” the benefits of eating complex carbs. Excessive added sugar intake can lead to negative health consequences, including:

  • High blood pressure
  • Inflammation
  • Weight gain/obesity 
  • Diabetes
  • Fatty liver disease
  • Heart Disease
  • Stroke

Another hidden health consequence of sugars in the body; refined sugars, such as white table sugar or other processed sweeteners, are converted to fat in the body when found in excess. In other words, eating a sugary bowl of oatmeal, a soda with lunch, and 20 cookies for dessert will primarily be used for energy, but once those energy needs are met, the excess will be stored as fat. This bodily process can lead to increased triglycerides in the blood and ultimate weight gain and even obesity. 

Although one bowl of instant oatmeal that contains added sugars will not instantly cause these health consequences, it is important to understand the difference between processed and pre-packaged options as opposed to buying raw oats and controlling how much sugar you add on your own!

Why they are perceived to be “unhealthy”

Oatmeal and granola are nutrient-dense complex carbohydrates that provide great health benefits to the body; however, these foods may be perceived to be “unhealthy” due to their high amount of carbohydrates. A popular food fad in society has been to label carbohydrates as the enemy because certain types of carbs, specifically refined sugars and simple carbs, can cause undesirable symptoms.

Carbs are not the enemy. Carbohydrates are essential to a balanced diet and the primary energy source for the body. The issue with carbohydrate consumption stems from refined and processed carbs, like white sugar, white bread, white rice, baked goods, chips, candy, soda, and many more. Refined carbohydrates provide little nutritional value and can cause negative effects on the body, such as the health condition listed above. 

Still, society deemed that all carbs were bad, even complex carbs that provide loads of nutrients and energy for the body, like whole grains and potatoes. This assumption spiked the hype around low-carb diets, like keto, South Beach diet, and paleo. Since gluten is found primarily in grains and carbohydrate sources, the gluten-free diet got lumped into the low-carb craze, even though gluten-free does not necessarily mean low carb! 

The fact that making companies also list words such as "keto," "low-carb," or "speeds up digestion" also eludes to raw oats being an unhealthy food. This is part of a marketing tactic as these are currently buzz words in the food and beverage realm, and is not necessarily true based on science.  

The Bottom Line… 

Whether you choose to view oats through a “carbs are the enemy” lens or you see oats as a super-food, the health benefits of oatmeal and granola are backed by science. Ultimately, we believe that you should listen to your body; if you feel satiated and energized from eating a bowl of oatmeal, then bring on the oats! Choose sources of oats and granola that have low-added sugar. Pure Plates takes the guesswork out of unhealthy vs healthy oats as they limit their added sugars. Additionally, if you feel bloated and sluggish from eating oats, then try to minimize them in your diet. There is no black and white answer to whether oats and granolas are “healthy” or not because it will always depend on how they make you feel.