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How long does oatmeal take to digest? (with charts!)

Like any whole grain, we have gotten away from the amazing benefits of whole oat groats, which take twice as long to digest than convenient instant oats. Let's look at the differences and give you 5 ways to cook this healthy, iconic breakfast dish.

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If you grew up in the 80’s and 90’s like me, your version of oatmeal came in a packet. I remember ripping open the paper package and adding hot water … within 30-seconds, I’d have a bowl of apple cinnamon flavored oatmeal (my preferred flavor) and be out the door for school, just to be hungry a few hours later.

It’s why oatmeal is SO MUCH more than these instant packets. If you’re new to whole grains and trying to move you and your family towards REAL food, you may be learning about the versatility and quirks of oatmeal for the first time.

Oatmeal is a complex carbohydrate so it digests more slowly than foods rich in simple carbs, but it depends on what type of oats you’re using to make oatmeal. The closer you get to unprocessed oats the more time it takes the oatmeal to digest. Whole oat groats can take up to 4 hours whereas instant oats can take as little as 1.5 hours.

Confusing? Yep. Let’s dive into this a bit more.

How Long Does Oatmeal Take To Digest
Instant oatmeal is what I grew up eating, but is one of the least healthy options for your morning bowl of oatmeal.

What is oatmeal?

Oatmeal is a generic term for a warm hot cereal made with any type of oats. It’s traditionally served for breakfast and includes oats that are heated with water or milk until the oats and liquid mix to become a thick and creamy consistency.

It’s endlessly customizable with fruit, nuts, honey, cinnamon, or other spices, making it much loved and enjoyed.

Oats really are a healthy grain packed full of vitamins and minerals, but a lot of misinformation around oats makes it confusing. Why? The type of oats you use to make your oatmeal matters! Instant oats that you get at the grocery store are not only packed with sugar and artificial flavors, they are also the most processed type of oats, which means they are the most void of nutrients.

Types of oats used to make oatmeal + their digestion time

If you want to know the time it takes to digest oatmeal, first you have to figure out what type of oatmeal. you’re going to eat. Oats are a versatile grain and come in various forms, each with its unique texture, cooking time, and digestion time.

Here are the different types of oats commonly used for oatmeal:

Whole oat goats

  • Description: These are the whole oat kernels with only the inedible outer husk removed. They are the least processed form of oats
  • Use: They take the longest to cook and have a chewy texture. They can be used for rustic-style oatmeal or in pilafs

Steel-cut oats (also known as “Irish” or “Scottish Oats”

  • Description: These are whole oat groats that have been chopped into pieces using large steel blades
  • Use: They have a chewy texture and nutty flavor, making them perfect for a hearty bowl of oatmeal

Rolled oats (also known as “Old-fashioned oats”)

  • Description: These are whole oat groats that have been steamed and then rolled into flakes. This process allows them to cook faster
  • Use: They are commonly used for oatmeal, baking (like in cookies and granola), and as a binder in recipes like meatloaf

Quick or instant oats

  • Description: These are rolled oats that have been cut into smaller pieces and then pre-cooked by steaming. As a result, they cook very quickly. This is what I grew up eating and is what you get when you buy the paper packets of apple cinnamon, and other flavors, we talked about above
  • Use: They are primarily used for quick-cooking oatmeal. However, they can become mushy if overcooked, so they’re not always the best choice for baking

Oat bran

  • Description: This is the outer layer of the oat groat and is packed with fiber
  • Use: It can be cooked as a hot cereal or added to baked goods for an extra boost of fiber

Each type of oat offers a distinct texture and flavor, making them suitable for different types of food, but all can be used to make oatmeal.

So, what’s the digestion time of each?

Type of OatNutrition HighlightsApproximate digestion time
Whole oat groatsHigh in fiber, protein, and essential nutrients3-4 hours
Steel-cut oatsRich in fiber, slightly lower glycemic index2.5-3 hours
Rolled oatsGood source of fiber, vitamins, and minerals2-2.5 hours
Quick or instant oatsLower in fiber due to processing, may have added sugars1.5-2 hours
Oat branVery high in fiber, especially beta-glucan2-3 hours

Best type of oats for oatmeal: Whole oat groats

As you can see in the chart above, your best bet is going to be whole oat groats as they have not been processed. Your body is forced to slow down its digestion to process them, keeping you full longer. Whole oat groats not only have more vitamins and nutrients, but it’s really the protein and dietary fiber that makes the difference.

No matter the food, protein will ALWAYS keep you full longer. The more you process whole grains, the more you are changing the food. This is why whole oat groats have a longer digestion time.

It may take time to get used to the chewy texture and nutty flavor of whole oat groats, but once you make the switch, you’ll feel good from breakfast, all the way through lunch.

Here is a comparison chart to understand the nutritional differences between the different types of oats. Please note that the values provided are approximate averages for a 1/2 cup cooked serving and can vary based on specific brands, processing methods, and preparation.

 Whole oat groatsSteel-cut oatsRolled oatsQuick or instant oatsOat bran
Dietary Fiber7g5g4g4g7g
Total Fat2.5g2.5g2.5g2.5g1.5g
Saturated Fat0.5g0.5g0.5g0.5g0.3g
Monounsaturated Fat1g1g1g1g0.5g
Polyunsaturated Fat1g1g1g1g0.7g
Vitamin B60.2mg0.2mg0.2mg0.2mg0.1mg
I’m using this chart to provide a comprehensive breakdown of the nutritional content of various oat types. However, make sure you look at the specific product label of the oats you purchase for precise values, as these can vary.

5 Ways to prepare whole oat groats

Here are some ways to prepare whole oat groats for a wholesome breakfast:

  1. Basic stovetop cooking: Best for when you have an hour or so before you leave. This can be started when you first get up in the morning and can cook as you get ready for the day
    • Rinse the oat groats thoroughly under cold water
    • In a pot, combine 1 cup of oat groats with 3 cups of water
    • Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to low and simmer, covered, for 45-60 minutes or until tender
    • Season with salt and serve with your favorite toppings like fresh fruits, nuts, and a drizzle of honey
  2. Overnight soaking: “Overnight oats” have become popular for good reason, it cuts your cooking time by half, and some people even like their overnight oats cold.
    • Soak the oat groats in water overnight. This reduces the cooking time and makes them easier to digest.
    • In the morning, drain and rinse the soaked groats
    • Cook on the stovetop as described above, but reduce the cooking time to about 20-30 minutes
  3. Slow cooker: If you want to batch cook your oats for the week, or have a large family to feed, set your whole oat groats to cook overnight
    • Rinse the oat groats and place them in a slow cooker
    • Add 4 cups of water for every 1 cup of oat groats
    • Cook on low for 6-8 hours or overnight. Wake up to perfectly cooked oat groats ready for breakfast!
  4. Pressure cooker or instant pot: I love how the instant pot can save so much time! It uses pressure to get the same effect of long-cooking, but without the time
    • Rinse the oat groats and place them in the pressure cooker
    • Add 3 cups of water for every 1 cup of oat groats
    • Cook under high pressure for 20-25 minutes, then allow natural pressure release
  5. Toasted oat groats: To add some flavor to your oats, try this! You can also toast oats in batches, keeping the toasted but uncooked oats in your fridge until they are ready to use
    • Toast the oat groats in a dry skillet over medium heat for a few minutes until they become aromatic. This enhances their nutty flavor
    • Cook as per the basic stovetop method

Remember, whole oat groats take longer to cook than other forms of oats, but their robust flavor and texture make them worth the wait. They’re a versatile breakfast option that can be tailored to suit various taste preferences.

Topping ideas for whole oat groats

Toppings can elevate the flavor and texture of whole oat groats, making your breakfast both delicious and nutritious. Here are some topping ideas for whole oat groats:

  1. Fruits
    • Fresh: Sliced bananas, berries (strawberries, blueberries, raspberries), diced apples, pears, or peaches
    • Dried: Raisins, sultanas, dried apricots, dried cranberries, or dried figs
    • Stewed: Apples or pears stewed with cinnamon and a touch of honey
  2. Nuts and seeds
    • Nuts: Chopped almonds, walnuts, pecans, or cashews
    • Seeds: Chia seeds, flaxseeds, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, or hemp seeds
  3. Sweeteners
    • Natural: Honey, maple syrup, agave nectar, or date syrup
    • Spreads: Almond butter, peanut butter, or cashew butter
  4. Dairy
    • Milk: A splash of cow’s milk or coconut milk
    • Yogurt: Greek yogurt or regular yogurt
  5. Spices and flavorings
    • Cinnamon, nutmeg, vanilla extract, or a pinch of salt
  6. Grains and cereals
    • Granola, muesli, or a sprinkle of rolled oats for added texture
  7. Tropical twist
    • Coconut: Shredded coconut or coconut flakes
    • Tropical fruits: Sliced kiwi, mango chunks, or pineapple bits
  8. Savory toppings
    • Sautéed vegetables: Mushrooms, spinach, or tomatoes
    • Cheese: Grated cheddar, feta crumbles, or a dollop of ricotta
    • Herbs: Chopped chives, parsley, or cilantro
    • Proteins: Poached or fried egg, smoked salmon, or crumbled bacon
  9. Chocolate lovers
    • Cocoa nibs, chocolate chips, or a drizzle of chocolate syrup
  10. Extras
    • Zest: Lemon or orange zest for a fresh twist.
    • Jams and Preserves: A spoonful of your favorite jam, jelly, or fruit preserve

The beauty of oat groats is their versatility. You can mix and match toppings based on your preferences and what you have on hand. Whether you’re in the mood for something sweet, savory, or a combination of both, there’s a topping idea to suit every palate!

Frequently asked questions

Is oatmeal easy to digest?

Yes, oatmeal is generally easy to digest and well-tolerated by most people. If you are eating whole oat groats, it is a whole grain that is rich in soluble fiber, particularly beta-glucan, which forms a gel-like substance in the gut. This not only aids in smooth digestion but also provides a feeling of fullness and can help stabilize blood sugar levels.

Note that if you are eating instant oatmeal, it is not considered a whole grain and does not have the same nutritional benefits of whole oat groats, so be careful what type of oats you buy.

How do you make oatmeal digest faster?

You typically don’t want to make oatmeal digest faster! Fast digesting carbohydrates are also known as “simple carbs” as they are typically ingested and then quickly digested and absorbed into the bloodstream.They provide the body with an insulin boost and a quick burst of energy, but often times leading to a quick crash.

Sometimes people use oatmeal right before a workout, which would be the only time you’d want to make oatmeal digest faster. If this is you, you can:

  • Soak the oats overnight. This breaks down the starches and reduces the natural phytic acid, which can interfere with the absorption of certain nutrients
  • Cook the oatmeal well. The longer you cook it, the softer it becomes, making it easier to digest
  • Add digestive-friendly ingredients like ginger or a pinch of fennel seeds
  • Chew thoroughly. Proper chewing starts the digestive process in the mouth and can help the rest of the digestive system process oatmeal more efficiently

How do you make oatmeal digest slower?

To make oatmeal digest more slowly, you can incorporate ingredients and methods that slow down the digestion process. Slower digestion can help maintain steady blood sugar levels and keep you feeling full for longer. Here are some ways to achieve this:

  1. Add fiber: Incorporate high-fiber ingredients into your oatmeal. Examples include chia seeds, flaxseeds, berries, nuts, and shredded coconut. Fiber slows down the digestion process and provides a feeling of fullness
  2. Include protein: Adding protein sources like nuts, seeds, Greek yogurt, or even a scoop of protein powder can slow down the rate at which carbohydrates are absorbed, leading to a more prolonged release of energy
  3. Use whole oat groats: Opt for whole oat groats or steel-cut oats instead of instant or quick oats. The less processed the oats, the slower they digest
  4. Limit added sugars: Avoid adding too much sugar or sweet syrups. Instead, sweeten your oatmeal naturally with fruits or a small amount of honey or maple syrup. Excessive sugars can speed up digestion and cause a rapid spike in blood sugar
  5. Incorporate healthy fats: Adding healthy fats like avocados, nuts, or a drizzle of olive oil can slow down the digestion process. Fats take longer to digest than carbohydrates.
  6. Cooking method: Cooking oatmeal for a longer time can break down its structure, making it easier to digest. If you want to slow down digestion, opt for a shorter cooking time, keeping the oats slightly al dente
  7. Stay hydrated: Drink plenty of water throughout the day. Proper hydration aids in digestion and helps fiber work effectively in the digestive tract

By incorporating these methods and ingredients, you can ensure that your oatmeal digests more slowly, providing sustained energy and keeping you full for a longer period.

Is instant oatmeal fast digesting?

Yes, instant oatmeal is faster digesting compared to other types of oats. This is because instant oats are pre-cooked, dried, and then rolled. This processing makes them cook quickly and also digest faster. However, it’s worth noting that because they digest quickly, they might not keep you full as whole oat groats. Additionally, some instant oatmeal packets may contain added sugars and flavorings, so it’s essential to read the label.

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