Oatmeal is often synonymous for “healthy breakfast.” It’ may be one of the few healthy options on diner menus, and those who opt for the porridge instead of pancakes are lauded as disciplined heroes.
But hang on—while the health benefits of oatmeal are certainly lengthy, that doesn’t mean every bowl of oats is automatically good for you. There’s a lot that can happen between the oat canister and your bowl that can turn your oatmeal against you.
1. You don’t balance your macros.
“Balancing macros” might seem like a thing only gym buffs do, and you probably don’t need to meticulously count out every gram of carbs, protein, and fat you consume. But it’s always a good idea to make sure each meal contains a bit of each.
Take a look at a typical bowl of oatmeal: You may find oats, raisins, sliced banana, honey, and a handful of berries. Notice a trend? Each of these ingredients—although nutritious—is a carbohydrate, meaning your breakfast is pretty carb-heavy. Even though they’re mostly complex carbs with lots of fiber, you’re still missing an opportunity to balance out your meal with protein and healthy fats.
“Healthy fat is the key to regulating blood sugar, keeping the fat-burning hormones fired up, and preventing hunger too early in the day,” says Sylvia North, RD, founder of Fearless Nutrition in New Zealand. Here are sources of healthy fat to add to your oatmeal.
And don’t forget the protein, which North calls “a major satiety nutrient.” Good quality protein powders, an egg, or some nut butter can go a long way in staving off hunger pangs.
Psst … and if you’re feeling adventurous, check out this clever hack for low-carb oatmeal.
2. You drown your oats with sugar.
And we’re not just talking about table sugar or honey. “Raisins, brown sugar, chopped dates, and dried cranberries in large quantities can provide more sugar than a scoop of ice cream,” says Lauren Manaker, MS, RDN, LD, owner of Nutrition Now Counseling.
Don’t believe us? Check this out: Ben & Jerry’s Cherry Garcia ice cream contains 23 grams of sugar per serving. By comparison, the seemingly innocent fruit and maple oatmeal from McDonald’s has a whopping 33 grams of sugar.
“It’s not dessert,” says North. “You’re already getting a good carb punch from the oats, so it’s advised to limit added carbs from fruit.” Check out the 9 ways your body benefits when you eat less sugar.
3. You overload on dried fruit.
Oatmeal might be bland on its own, but adding a mountain of raisins is not the way to punch up the flavor. “Just a quarter cup [of dried fruit] is more calories than the oatmeal alone,” says Shari Portnoy, MPH, RD, CFT, EMT, nutritionist at Food Label Nutrition. For example, that ¼ cup of raisins equals 120 calories and 29 grams of sugar.
Instead, try “using fresh fruit rather than dried, since fresh fruit offers a much greater volume for fewer calories,” says Summer Yule, MS, RDN, nutritionist based in Connecticut.
4. You cook with water.
Sure, cooking in water saves calories, but low-fat milk and soy milk provide important benefits that are worth it. In addition to providing extra nutrients, using milk also makes your bowl of oatmeal more hearty and filling.
Cooking oats with water is one of the most common oatmeal mistakes seen by Vanessa Rissetto, RD, nutritionist based in New Jersey and New York City. When people make oats with water, “there’s no protein or fat to hold them over,” she says. “Then they end up eating something sugary 30 minutes later.”
5. You add high-fat dairy.
Dietitians might recommend cooking your oats in milk, but not all dairy makes the cut. High-fat dairy contains saturated fat, which tends to raise cholesterol in the blood, according to the American Heart Association.
“Some people pat themselves on the back for not adding extra sugar to their oats, but turn right around and toss in a few slabs of butter,” says Casey Seiden, MS, RD, CDN, registered dietitian in New York City. “The saturated fat in butter is adding extra calories, and from a source that is not very heart-healthy.”
Similar mistakes include cooking in whole milk or drizzling with heavy cream. Instead, balance your macros with healthy fats, like nuts or nut butter, suggests Seiden.
6. You add too many toppings.
Oatmeal has found renewed popularity among “foodies” on Instagram, but be careful copying these decadent bowls. “These bowls [on Instagram] are often made bigger and loaded with toppings to look aesthetically pleasing,” warns Diana Licalzi Maldonado, RDN, MS, dietitian at Health Quest Consulting.
What counts as “too many” toppings is highly individualized based on your nutrition and health needs.
“I could easily create a bowl of oatmeal that tops 1,000 calories using nutrient- and energy-dense, healthy ingredients, such as nuts and dried fruits,” says Yule. “This may be great for someone who is looking to put on weight. But if a person who is looking to lose weight eats this way most mornings, they could very well be sabotaging their weight loss goals without realizing it.”
7. You use instant flavored oatmeal packets.
Convenience comes at a price. “While convenient, these [flavored oatmeal packets] are unfortunately not as healthy and nutritious as they seem,” says says Jenny Friedman, RD, nutritionist at Nutrition With Jenny. “Often these are loaded with sugar and lack fiber, which is one of oatmeal’s major claims.”
If convenience is your thing, Friedman suggests looking for unsweetened and unflavored oats, or preparing overnight oatmeal.
Need more breakfast ideas?