False Facts About Oatmeal You Thought Were True

No food seems to be safe from rumors, myths, and misinformation. Even basic oatmeal is the subject of some persistent half-truths and false facts, especially given the emphasis on social media and in newscasts on finding the next big diet problem and raising the alarm. Influencers want clout and marketers want your attention, and that combination has led to some odd claims with little scrutiny as oatmeal has time and again landed under their microscope.

Good old oatmeal is a breakfast staple for many, but several false facts have led some to avoid it and others to ascribe to oatmeal certain qualities that it doesn't have. It's definitely one of the healthier foods out there, depending on how it's made. But, as with any food, the amount you eat and what you eat it with can vastly affect just how healthy it really is for you. Let's take a look at some false facts about oatmeal you thought were true and find out what's really behind all those oatmeal claims.

False: Two myths about oatmeal and gluten

Two false facts about oatmeal and gluten are that oats are gluten-free, and that oats are not gluten-free. Those actually don't contradict each other, despite how that might sound. Oats themselves don't contain gluten, so thinking that oats are automatically forbidden for those who can't have gluten is false. But oats can become contaminated if the machinery used to process them also processed wheat or another gluten-containing food. They can also become contaminated at almost any point in the journey to the grocery store and your breakfast bowl. So, it's also false to say that oats are always absolutely gluten-free. If you can't have gluten, you can still have oats if you look for brands that are certified gluten-free, at least before you remove them from their container. If the oats are not certified, then you can't necessarily count on them being free of gluten.

There's one more problem. Research has indicated that the specific variety of the oat species many of us eat may be more likely to set off a reaction in celiac patients and that some with celiac disease may not be able to tolerate even pure oats. If you've got celiac disease and aren't sure if you can have oatmeal, speak with your doctor.

False: Oatmeal will spike your blood sugar and cause insulin resistance

Oatmeal provides carbohydrates. It doesn't take much to find someone who's all too happy to tell you about the evil of carbs and how they can cause your blood sugar to spike. That could lead to insulin resistance and a lifetime of discomfort, or so they say. Oatmeal, however, is a complex carbohydrate with a moderate glycemic index. In fact, fruit and other breakfast foods typically have higher glycemic indexes, so plain oatmeal is not a glycemic mess. If you're concerned about glycemic load, a food's effect on blood glucose after eating, plain oatmeal is still in the medium range.

Oats contain beta-glucan, which is the stuff that makes oatmeal so great for heart health. Turns out that beta-glucan may also help slow the rise of your blood sugar after eating and actually help improve insulin sensitivity and help reduce the chances of you developing type 2 diabetes. If you're diabetic or pre-diabetic, of course, speak with your doctor about your particular health status to make sure that adding oatmeal to your diet is OK. 

However, how you eat oatmeal matters. Instant oats may create more of a blood sugar spike because your body can break them down faster than thicker old-fashioned oats. Adding things like brown sugar will change the glycemic load. But if you're avoiding oatmeal merely because you think the oats themselves are going to destroy your blood sugar, you can discard that false fact.

False: Oatmeal is great for weight loss

Oatmeal is filling and healthy, which some say makes it a great choice for breakfast (or breakfast for dinner) if you're trying to lose weight. So why would that be a false fact? Oatmeal isn't too devastating in terms of calories when it's eaten in reasonable amounts and with reasonable portions of fruit or other add-in. What's more, it has fiber, which may help with weight control. 

But if you like instant oatmeal that's heavily flavored, for example, or even just get a huge portion of plain oatmeal, you could overdo it and eat enough to send your food intake soaring above what you need for the day. That will sabotage your weight loss efforts. So, oatmeal is not necessarily great for weight loss if you don't monitor how much of it you eat as part of your daily diet.

Weight loss is different for everyone, but regardless of which method you use to lose weight, you still have to be careful about not overeating. If you dump several spoonfuls of brown sugar and maple syrup into two cups of oatmeal, for example, that's a lot of extra calories and sugar. Even overeating plain oatmeal will be an issue if that's enough of it in your bowl. No food is bad, but having excessive amounts can throw off your food intake for the day. Do that enough times, and you'll likely find it harder to lose weight, even with oatmeal.

False: All oatmeal is the same

Rolled oats, old-fashioned, quick-cooking, instant, steel cut ... It doesn't matter what style or shape they come in, they're all oatmeal, right? Yes, but no. They are all arguably oatmeal in different forms, but those forms can dramatically affect how your body digests those oats. Instant oats, which are cut into thinner and smaller pieces, are easier and faster to digest. Their glycemic index is higher than that of steel-cut or oat groats, which take the longest time to digest, have a less dramatic effect on blood sugar, and have the most fiber. 

That doesn't mean that you have to eat only steel-cut oats and never the quicker-cooking versions. Just keep in mind that if you buy the flavored and sweetened varieties of instant oatmeal, you're getting a lot of extra sugar and sodium plus additives. Comparing the nutrition data for 1 oz. of plain, 1.5 oz of maple and brown sugar, and 1.5 oz of cinnamon spice instant oatmeal, the differences can be stark. Plain instant oatmeal typically has 0.42 grams of added sugars per ounce, which would be 0.63 grams per 1.5 oz. Yet 1.5 oz. of maple and brown sugar instant oatmeal can have 13 grams of added sugars! Obviously, these numbers can vary depending on the brand, but that's a big difference anyway. If you want to eat instant oatmeal, go for plain plus fresh fruit you add on your own, or try savory variations that include eggs or avocados.

False: Instant oatmeal is terrible for you

After hearing about all the added sugars and sodium in many brands of instant oatmeal, never touching the stuff again might sound like a good idea. Ease up, though. Instant oatmeal isn't that bad. Instant oatmeal can indeed cause a larger rise in blood sugar than other forms of oatmeal, and the added sugars and so on in flavored varieties can represent an issue. But plain instant oatmeal is still pretty great, and you can customize it to your heart's content.

Even if you're in a rush in the morning and have time only for a fast cup of instant oatmeal, you can toss fresh or frozen blueberries in there in a second. Walnuts and chopped almonds work, too, and yes, if you want, you can add a little bit of syrup or sugar for flavor. Just don't add a lot, at least not if you're watching your sugar intake. Try adding spices such as classic cinnamon, or something a little unexpected like paprika as an experiment. Or, try making overnight oats the night before. It won't be instant, exactly, but can be pretty convenient anyway. You can use rolled or old-fashioned for those and make extra servings for the next couple of days.

False: Oatmeal helps you burn more fat

Do you know what negative-calorie foods are? They're foods that supposedly make you burn more calories through chewing and digesting than you gain through eating. The idea is that you can consume these foods and end up with a caloric deficit. Apparently there's a long-standing food belief that oatmeal is just such a negative-calorie food that helps you burn more fat. Sorry, that's not true.

That's largely because, while the concept of negative-calorie foods is a nice one, they don't exist (no, not even celery is negative-calorie). Soft foods like oatmeal don't require a lot of energy to chew, for one. Plus, oatmeal's calorie count is higher than other foods that are often touted as negative-calorie, and you just aren't going to burn that much as you eat. The typical "negative-calorie" food is crunchy or otherwise hard to chew, and it's low-calorie and contains a lot of water. So, even if there were negative-calorie foods — which, to be very clear, there aren't — oatmeal would definitely not be among them.

False: You're better off eating oatmeal for breakfast instead of other foods

Just as there are people who will tell you to stay away from oatmeal, there are also those who might tell you that you should always eat oatmeal and that it's better for you than almost any other breakfast food. While oatmeal is "better" in the sense that it has a more moderate glycemic index and load than, say, sugary cereal, you can't really call it better overall because it's not the same as many other breakfast foods. It's like comparing apples to oranges, in other words. In fact, it's helpful to combine oatmeal with foods like eggs to have a better balance of nutrients.

Oatmeal does provide some protein, for example, but it's only about 5 grams, which isn't much. If you want more, you could have an egg in addition to the oatmeal, or maybe add a protein-heavy non-dairy milk (like soy milk) to the mix. One simple add-in you might want to try is egg white, which you add just as the oatmeal is almost done cooking (you do end up cooking the white this way, to be clear, so you shouldn't be left eating raw egg).

False: Oatmeal has no nutrients

For some bizarre reason, a few people out there are really claiming that oatmeal has no nutrition. Yes, oatmeal has plenty of nutrition; not only does it have carbohydrates for energy, a little protein, and the fiber known as beta-glucan for digestion and heart health, but you'll also encounter a range of vitamins and minerals in that bowl of oatmeal. Sure, oatmeal may not have sky-high amounts of every nutrient, but that doesn't mean it's a nutritional wasteland.

This controversy apparently started when Arizona cardiologist Dr. Jack Wolfson posted a video in which he claimed that oatmeal was nutritionally empty and that ancient humans never ate the stuff. He also blamed companies like Nabisco for promoting oatmeal over eggs, then tried to connect the fact that chickens don't eat oatmeal to the idea that you can't nourish humans by feeding them oatmeal. Predictably (and thankfully), that led to several other doctors and dietitians posting on social media to debunk everything Wolfson said.

False: Oats are contaminated with dangerous levels of weed-killers

In 2018, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) found that many brands of oatmeal and other oat-related products were contaminated with glyphosate residue. Glyphosate is a component of Roundup, a common pesticide. The findings went viral, and people began to wonder if it was safe to eat oat products.

However, the levels of glyphosate that the EWG found were well below the maximum tolerance level that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had already established. Normally this would be the end of it, but the alarm spread quickly through news media. Slate investigated the situation and found that the EWG wasn't using the EPA's tolerance levels to determine whether the amount of glyphosate was dangerous. Instead, it took the stricter standard used by California and divided it by 100 to reach an even smaller maximum tolerance level. Slate's investigation noted that none of the samples tested by the EWG violated the standards for California or the EPA and that the only violation was of the EWG's artificially lowered standard.

The EWG performed more tests in 2023 and found that levels of glyphosate in oats were dropping. While the amounts might not have been anything to worry about, to begin with, no doubt many are happy to see even those small levels shrink more. If you're still concerned, however, many brands have since made an effort to go glyphosate-free, so take a few minutes to research and read the packaging.

False: You shouldn't eat oatmeal because it has phytic acid

Yet another false fact states that you shouldn't eat oatmeal because it contains phytic acid. What's true is that it does contain phytic acid, which stops your body from absorbing nutrients like calcium and iron. That's a legitimate concern for people prone to deficiencies in those nutrients. But what's false is the claim that everyone should avoid oatmeal because of this. Not only is phytic acid not a concern for most people, but the alarm over it is largely unfounded.

Phytic acid reduces your ability to absorb nutrients like iron at the time you consume it. However, this isn't a lingering effect where you can't absorb the nutrients later in the day. If you have oatmeal for breakfast but not for other meals, the phytic acid you ingest in the morning won't affect how you absorb nutrients during lunch or dinner. So if you're not already at risk of a deficiency, you get a balanced diet, and you aren't eating oatmeal with every meal, you're not going to suddenly find yourself low in minerals due to phytic acid. 

If you want to reduce the amount of phytic acid you consume anyway, there are a couple of strategies you can try when you make overnight oats. One tactic is to soak, drain, and rinse the oats before eating them. Another is to add a little apple cider vinegar or lemon juice to the oats when you start to cook them.

False: Overnight oats are much healthier than oatmeal

This is another one where there's a little bit of truth in the false fact. Overnight oats do have some slight advantages that regular oatmeal doesn't have. The soaking time makes them easier to digest for many people, and because they soak in a cool environment, they may end up with a little more resistant starch than regular oats cooked on the stove or in the microwave. Perhaps you've heard about those recent studies that said cooking and then cooling rice and pasta increased resistant starch in the two dishes? The same mechanism might be at play in oats. And of course, the soaking needed for overnight oats may reduce their phytic acid content.

But unless you need those qualities, overnight oats don't have much of a nutritional lead over regular cooked oats. Maybe they're easier to make if you don't want to stand at the stove, but that's about it. If you prefer regular cooked oats to the overnight version, you'll still get a lot of nutrition.

False: Oatmeal cookies are healthy

Aw, darn it. Oatmeal cookies aren't healthy. They can contain healthy ingredients, but the sweeteners and fats involved can turn a humble cup of oats into a calorie bomb. The specific recipe makes a difference for the overall nutrition, but in most cases, any oatmeal cookie is going to be a sugar-filled dessert, not a health food.

If you truly need to get as much nutrition as you can and reduce your intake of so-called "empty-calorie" foods, yet you still want a cookie, then choosing oatmeal over something like chocolate chip is wise. In general, a generic oatmeal cookie will have a little more fiber and less sugar than other cookies of the same size (though that really depends on how it's made). It's best if you can bake them yourself so that you can avoid the additives that usually go into commercial treats. As with breakfast oatmeal, you can try mixing in other foods such as apple chunks or blueberries for an extra nutritional boost. Still, there's no denying that a cookie of any sort is a treat.