Let’s be honest…oatmeal can be totally gross: unless properly doctored, it’s mushy, bland, and pretty much colorless. But if your mom was doing her job properly, she probably made you eat it anyway. That’s because moms can channel ancient matronly wisdom, which tells them that oatmeal is good for you—good for your outside and good for your insides.
Oatmeal is generally used in two forms: as rolled oats (or stone ground, or quick oats), which are eaten as porridge or mixed into baked goods, and as colloidal oatmeal, which is a fine powder that can be poured into bath water or used as an ingredient in beauty products. Both forms are derived from the same oat plant, Avena sativa, and differ only in the way they’re processed. People have eaten oats and oatmeal for centuries, and even the ancient Greeks and Romans knew about the soothing effects of an oatmeal bath. Now, thanks to modern medical science, we can begin to explain what makes oatmeal such good nourishment for so many parts of the body.
Tips for Using Oatmeal
- If you’re going to manage to eat enough oatmeal to really benefit your health, you’ll have to get creative about making the stuff more palatable. Unfortunately, some of the traditional oatmeal additives (like cream and brown sugar, or peanut butter and chocolate chips) make it tastier but less healthy. Instead, try fat free milk, fresh or dried fruit, nuts, vanilla extract, or spices like cinnamon and nutmeg.
- You can make your own colloidal oatmeal by grinding cereal oatmeal in a coffee grinder, food processor, or kitchen mill. Just make sure it’s ground finely enough that it immediately absorbs water and hangs suspended in the solution instead of sinking to the bottom of the tub. Expect to use at least 1/3 cup of oatmeal per bath—enough to make the water appear milky.
- To avoid drying your skin even more, always use lukewarm—not hot—water in an oatmeal bath. Also, be aware that colloidal oatmeal is slippery stuff, and be careful getting in and out of the tub.
- Even though it’s biologically the same thing as cereal oatmeal, you should never eat colloidal oatmeal.
Soluble fiber, which oats contain more of than any other grain, has been proven to lower cholesterol levels significantly. It works like this: once it hits the intestines, soluble fiber from oatmeal soaks up “bad” LDL cholesterol like a sponge and carries it along on its way out of the body. To remove a significant amount of cholesterol from the digestive tract, you need to consume three grams of soluble fiber a day, which just so happens to be the dose you get from the average bowl of oatmeal. Plus, thanks to its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, oatmeal seems to promote heart health even beyond its effects on cholesterol, and some studies show that it can help to lower blood pressure.
Oatmeal is an excellent source of nutrition for people with diabetes. The problem at the root of diabetes is that the level of glucose in the blood increases beyond healthy levels because the insulin that would normally carry glucose to the body’s cells doesn’t function properly or isn’t made by the pancreas in sufficient quantities. Oatmeal helps to regulate blood glucose levels in a couple of ways. First, it has a low glycemic index, meaning it’s digested slowly and creates a gentle rise in blood sugar instead of the hard and fast increase that results from eating a quickly-digested carbohydrate like white bread. Second, the soluble fiber in oatmeal helps to control the way the body digests starches and uses sugars, so a bowl of oatmeal in the morning can help keep blood glucose from spiking all day long. Of course, people using oatmeal to help with diabetes shouldn’t flavor it with sugary things.
People who are trying to lose weight should definitely make oatmeal part of their diet. When oatmeal is flavored with healthy additives like fresh fruit and nuts instead of fatty products like cream or sugary things like, well, sugar, it makes for an extremely nutritious and low-calorie alternative to the typical fat-packed or carbohydrate-heavy breakfast. Unlike a lot of other “light” breakfast foods, oatmeal is also hearty enough to help with appetite control. Again, we have oatmeal’s soluble fiber and low glycemic index to thank for that. It has so much fiber and is digested so slowly that relatively small portions of oatmeal can fill you up and keep you feeling full for a long time.
For thousands of years, people have taken advantage of oatmeal’s anti-itch properties to treat everything from insect bites and poison ivy rash to chicken pox, eczema, and shingles. Colloidal oatmeal, which is just cereal oatmeal that’s been ground so finely it becomes evenly dispersed in water instead of sinking, is the type used to soothe itchy skin. When mixed into a lukewarm bath, colloidal oatmeal coats the skin, protecting it from irritants and reducing inflammation slightly. It’s healthy to take up to three 10–15-minute oatmeal baths in a day. The baths will be especially effective if you pat dry and forego a final rinse with clean water so that a little bit of oatmeal residue stays on your skin.
Colloidal oatmeal baths can also be used to treat painful skin conditions characterized by dryness or inflammation, including windburn, sunburn, and diaper rash. Oatmeal baths cool painful skin the same way they soothe itchy skin: by protecting the skin and putting oatmeal’s anti-inflammatory powers to work on it. Oatmeal fights inflammation with an array of natural components, including vitamin E and compounds called avenanthramides, which are actually unique to oatmeal. Because a layer of colloidal oatmeal stays on the skin after an oatmeal bath, it helps to seal moisture in and is also good for treating skin that is simply dry.
Other Uses for Oatmeal
The great thing about whole grains like oats is that they’re excellent multitaskers: nature has packed them so full of fiber and nutrients that they’re capable of improving our health in several different ways at once. We’ve already covered oatmeal’s most common and scientifically sound uses, but it can do a few more things that I would be remiss not to mention:
- Oatmeal is a good source not only of soluble fiber, which moves slowly through the digestive system and promotes heart health, but also of insoluble fiber, which pushes its way through the digestive system quickly, keeping everything in its path moving along with it. That means a bowl of oatmeal is an easy and inexpensive home remedy for constipation.
- Because of its high insoluble fiber content, oatmeal may provide some protection against colorectal cancer. This idea is controversial in the medical community since studies of how fiber affects cancer risk have not consistently confirmed that it’s beneficial. However, the hypothesis seems logical enough: if insoluble fiber rushes waste products through the digestive tract, carcinogens amid the waste will have less time to be absorbed into the body. Oatmeal is also full of antioxidant compounds, which may play a role in cancer prevention.
- Oatmeal’s benefits to the skin are not just reserved for people. If your dog or cat is prone to dry, irritated skin or develops an itchy rash from bug bites, poison ivy, or an allergic reaction, oatmeal can help her, too. Either toss some colloidal oatmeal into her bath water or choose a pet shampoo with added oatmeal.
Quaker Oats is the best-known and most widely available brand of rolled oats. Quaker oatmeal products come in just about any form you could imagine, from “old fashioned” slower-cooking oatmeal to “instant” oats mixed with a variety of flavors and sold in single-serving packets or microwave-safe bowls. Fair warning, though: flavored oatmeal is a less healthy option, since it’s usually full of sugar.
McCann’s Steel Cut Irish Oatmeal is another well-known brand of cereal oatmeal. It differs from most other brands in that it is, as the name suggests, steel cut oatmeal. The process of cutting oats allows them to be cooked with the bran, which is the oat’s outer shell, intact. Oat bran contains more soluble fiber than pretty much anything else on earth, so if you get up a little earlier in the morning, McCann’s oatmeal will reward you with bonus healthy stuff. You can find McCann’s at Amazon in a 28oz tin.
Aveeno products are all founded on natural ingredients that are beneficial to the skin. Most of the Aveeno skincare line contains colloidal oatmeal, from lotion to body wash to lip conditioner to shaving cream. And, if all you need is an old-fashioned oatmeal bath to soothe an itch, your pharmacy should have a box of plain colloidal oatmeal with Aveeno’s name on it.
Mrs. Meyer’s Clean Day Oatmeal Pet Shampoo is an all-natural, environmentally-friendly shampoo suitable for dogs or cats. It contains oatmeal extract and vitamin E to soothe dry, itchy skin and moisturize your pet’s coat. As an added bonus, it’s made with calming essential oils of clary, sage, and chamomile to ensure that your pet comes out of the bath smelling great and—maybe—feeling Zen, though I doubt chamomile could give much comfort to a wet cat. Actually, you will probably feel more zen than your pet.