Have you ever wondered what the difference is between the different types of oatmeal and oats you see in the store?
Oats are a fantastic source of carbohydrates – the kind that leave you with lasting energy and digest slowly. They’ve got soluble, insoluble and prebiotic fiber – all excellent for your gut health.
Soluble fiber helps you feel full longer, stabilizes blood sugar, and promotes healthy bowel function. Prebiotics are non-digestible parts of foods that feed the good gut bacteria in our digestive system, and promote the health benefits of probiotics.
You’ll see so many kinds of oats in the grocery store that it can be a little confusing.
There are whole oat groats, steel cut (or Irish) oats, Scottish oats, rolled or old fashioned oats, quick oats, instant oats, oat bran and oat flour.
- Whole oats: All oats start off as oat groats which is the whole, unbroken grains. The hull has been removed, but every other part of the oat is intact.
- Steel cut (Irish) oats are the product of when the whole oat groat is cut into several pieces with a steel cutter. This is the kind I typically make overnight oatmeal out of. They feel hard and look like small pebbles. They contain the most fiber, and benefit from the overnight soaking method so they absorb water, soften and then cook quickly the next day (using the process described here) so you can easily digest them while still getting all the fiber and other healthful nutrients.
- Scottish oats are stone-ground whole oats, often made into porridge.
- Rolled oats or old-fashioned oats are the product of when the oat groat is steamed, then rolled flat between steel rollers. Manufacturers vary in how thick they are rolled, but they all look similar (see below). This is probably the one you have seen the most.
- Instant oats or quick oats are the most processed. Once the whole oat is steamed and rolled, they are then pre-cooked, dried, and then chopped. That means they’ll cook quickly – but they will not have as much fiber as the less processed variants. You’ll also notice that many of the “quick oats” that come in packets have other additives like sugar and flavors so you have to consider whether the shortcut is worth it.
- Oat Bran is actually a byproduct of the manufacturing process. It’s the outer layer of the oat groat.
- Oat Flour is finely ground rolled oats.
The more grains are processed, the less vital nutrients and fiber the whole grain contains.
And we want that fiber! It’s fiber that allows for a slow, steady release of energy after you eat the oats, and it’s fiber that stabilizes your blood sugar. Not to mention, fiber is essential for good gut health and a healthy digestive system.
You may have heard that grains cause digestive issues – and they can when eaten without mindful preparation. Grains naturally contain a variety of enzyme inhibitors that can interfere with digestion and put stress on the pancreas, sugar complexes the body can’t break down, hard-to-digest proteins like gluten, and irritating tannins.
These substances are not meant to harm us – they are simply part of the plants’ protection adaptations to prevent premature sprouting – but they can have harmful side effects if consumed in large quantities over time.
So what to do? Well, to make grains easier for our system to process so we can utilize all of their wonderful nutrients and energy, we simply need to take simple steps to remove those substances by preparing them in a way that imitates nature’s process: they need a little warmth, a little time, and a bit of acidity to sprout properly.
Soak, Sprout or Ferment
This brings us to a step you can use to prepare your whole grains, rooted in ancient traditions from around the globe. Our ancestors knew what modern society seems to have forgotten: that soaked, sprouted and fermented whole grains reap bigger benefits!
Soaking, sprouting or fermenting your whole grains (and in the case of oats, I’m talking about the steel cut form of whole oats, not the rolled or quick oats) for as little as 7 hours allows for the breakdown of the harder to digest outer protective coating of the grain, the neutralization of enzyme inhibitors, and the dismantling of the complex gluten-protein (in gluten-containing grains) into simpler components, all of which add up to easier digestion, increased nutrient intake, and more energy.
This is what’s behind all the “overnight oatmeal” recipes you’ll find on my blog and meal plans.
Including this prep step also adds beneficial enzymes to the grain, noticeably increasing the amount of B vitamins (which have a host of benefits, like helping us convert food into fuel!)
What’s more, soaking effectively begins pre-digestion of a grain so that your body doesn’t have to struggle with handling it, and can focus on enjoying that long-lasting, stable energy you get instead.
You can actually find sprouted quinoa, sprouted cereals, and even sprouted oats in some grocery stores, as this concept has become a little more mainstream. That can save you the extra step of soaking overnight, but just be sure you’re ok with added sugars or flavors (in the case of cereals or pre made products from sprouted grains).
It’s absolutely okay to eat your grains unsoaked, unsprouted and or not fermented – it may not bother your system at all. But these simple and accessible cooking practices can support your digestive system and when you pre-soak, your cooking time is reduced – saving you time in the long run.
I go for the steel cut oats because they contain the most fiber, the most nutrients and then use the soaking method because it gives my body access to the least processed, most nutrient dense form of the oat.
You’ll probably see other “overnight oatmeal” recipes that are more about soaking rolled oats overnight in yogurt or milk with spices and fruit. Those are tasty, but not what I’m talking about when I’m recommending the soaking method overnight.
Soaking Method for Overnight Oatmeal:
- 1 cup steel-cut oats
- 3-3.5 cups water (divided)
- 2 T acidic medium (lemon juice (I use this most commonly), apple cider vinegar, yogurt for example)
- Place oats in a bowl and cover with 2 cups of water and acidic medium.
- Cover and allow to sit at room temperature for 7 hours, or overnight.
- Rinse and drain, then cook on the stovetop with 1-1.5 cups of fresh water until the water is fully absorbed and oats are an even consistency.
Delicious recipes made with overnight oatmeal: