Low in fat and abundant in vitamins and minerals, grains are an essential part of a healthy diet. The most beneficial grains are the whole grains, which should make up at least half of the grains you eat, recommends the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. But perhaps you're feeling the advice is not quite that simple. You might know, for example, that barley, wheat and rice are grains, but wonder if oatmeal qualifies as one. Or you might be certain oatmeal is a grain, but not know whether it's a whole grain or not. And the various forms of oatmeal that are available just adds to the mystery. All that's needed to clear up the confusion, though, is a little information.
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Refined grains are milled, giving the grain a finer texture and increasing its shelf life. But the process also strips away much of the bran and germ, where a great deal of the fiber and nutrients are concentrated. What is left is the starchy endosperm. Some examples of refined grains include white rice, white bread, and the white flour used in many baked goods, breads and pastas.
A whole grain is an unrefined grain. Its bran and germ have not been removed through milling; all three parts of the grain remain -- the bran, the germ and the endosperm. Whole grains are a much better source of fiber and other important nutrients than refined grains are. Examples of whole grains include brown rice and popcorn. Oatmeal, too, is a whole grain. In fact, oats are one of the few well-known grains that almost never has its bran and germ eliminated during processing.
Types of Oatmeal
Oatmeal is processed using a number of methods, and each method results in a different form of oatmeal. Oat groats are oats in their most wholesome form. They are the largest of the oatmeal choices and take the longest to cook. If they are cut into two or three pieces with a metal blade, the result is steel cut oats. Steel cut oats that have been pressed flat with a roller and lightly steamed produce rolled oats. And rolled oats that have been chopped up are called quick oats. The smaller surface area of quick oats means faster cooking time. Instant oats are finely cut quick oats that have been partially cooked and then dehydrated. The only difference between each of these oatmeal forms is texture and cooking time. They are all whole grains, and the nutrition they offer remains the same.
The soluble fiber in oatmeal helps to lower blood cholesterol and may help maintain healthy blood pressure. Soluble fiber also aids in controlling blood sugar, so oatmeal may lower your chances of Type 2 diabetes. When buying instant oats, however, check the label for added sugar. A healthier option is to buy the no-sugar-added variety and mix in some fruit or a drizzle of maple syrup to sweeten it.