You probably think of oatmeal as a breakfast food but have you ever re-purposed it as a post-workout meal or snack? What is oatmeal anyway? It’s processed by steaming, rolling, or crushing oat groats to make it faster to cook them. Another type called steel-cut oatmeal has skyrocketed in popularity recently. Unlike standard oatmeal that’s rolled or crushed, steel-cut oats are made by chopping oat groats into small pieces. All forms of oatmeal fall into the category of whole grains.
Why Oatmeal is a Good Post-Workout Snack
One reason to treat yourself to a bowl after a workout is to replenish glycogen stores. Oatmeal is an excellent source of slowly digested carbs to replace muscle and liver glycogen stores that your workout depleted. Steel-cut oats are lower on the glycemic scale, meaning they’re more slowly digested than rolled oats. As a result, they cause a less pronounced rise in glucose and insulin. That’s because steel-cut oats are harder for your digestive tract to digest and convert into glucose. That’s normally a good thing, but right after a workout, a short-term rise in insulin helps get nutrients, like amino acids and glucose, to your muscles faster. So, rolled oats, despite being higher on the glycemic scale, are a good option immediately after a workout for fast glycogen replenishment.
After a tough workout, particularly one that emphasizes eccentric contractions that you’re not accustomed to, your muscles may be inflamed in response to the force you placed on them. Oats are an abundant source of a variety of phytochemicals with antioxidant and anti-inflammatory activity. One group of compounds in oats called avenanthramides have notable anti-inflammatory activity.
According to a study published in the European Journal of Applied Physiology, avenanthramides in oats and oatmeal may reduce the inflammatory response your muscles endure after a challenging workout. It also may help to keep inflammation in check as we age. In the study, researchers gave a group of post-menopausal women two cookies daily made with oat flour for eight weeks. A second group ate two cookies daily made without oat flour. The 8-week study was double-blinded so that neither the women or the researchers knew who got the cookies made with oats.
Before and after consuming the cookies, the women walked downhill on a treadmill to activate eccentric contractions in their legs, the kind most damaging to the muscles. To measure the inflammatory response, they checked a variety of inflammatory markers. The results? The women who consumed the oat cookies with avenanthramides experienced a reduction in inflammatory markers and a bump-up in their antioxidant defense system. The avenanthramides, abundant in oats and oatmeal, was linked with a reduction in inflammatory response after eccentric exercise. Would avenanthramides reduce muscle soreness as well? Research has yet to look at this issue.
Another question is whether eating oatmeal might help keep the inflammatory response in check as we age. That was one of the issues this study was looking at. It looks promising but more research is needed.
Other Benefits Post-Workout
What about nutrition? Oatmeal offers approximately a 2 to 1 ratio of carbohydrates to protein. An ideal post-workout meal or snack would have a ratio of 2 to 1 or 3 to 1 carbohydrates to protein. With a little milk on top, oatmeal fits the bill. You can also add dried or fresh fruit to increase the carbs a bit more if you did an intense workout. For more antioxidants, fiber, and healthy fats mix in chia seeds, ground flaxseed, or chopped nuts. So many ways to customize your oatmeal and change its taste and nutritional content.
Moderate exercise may enhance the ability of your body to fight off infection but intense exercise can temporarily suppress your body’s immune response. Fortunately, oats contain a compound called beta-glucan that boosts the power of immune cells called neutrophils to fight infection. A bowl after a workout may give your body a leg up in fighting infection.
Oatmeal is also a good source of soluble fiber, the type that helps lower cholesterol. According to Dr. James W. Anderson, professor of medicine and clinical nutrition at the University of Kentucky College of Medicine, whole grains are among the best foods for lowering cholesterol. Plus, it reduces the LDL-cholesterol without impacting HDL-cholesterol.
If oatmeal helps reduce inflammation, as the avenanthramide study suggests, it may lower the risk of heart disease by reducing blood vessel inflammation as well. Oatmeal and other whole grains are a heart-healthy option. Finally, based on some studies, the avenanthramides help lower blood pressure by boosting the production of nitric oxide inside the blood vessel wall. More nitric oxide allows the blood vessel to expand to enhance blood flow and reduce blood pressure.
One type of oatmeal to avoid is instant oatmeal – the kind that comes in little packets with added flavoring. Those packets often have artificial colorings and flavoring as well as added sugar. Stick to old-fashioned or steel-cut oatmeal. You might also see “quick oats” at your local supermarket. These are rolled oats cut into small pieces so they cook faster. They’re higher on the glycemic scale than either standard or steel-cut oats. If you have the time to cook it, steel cut oats are best for daily use, although rolled or old-fashioned oats are better for restoring glycogen quickly. All oatmeal is a healthier breakfast option than cold cereal you buy in a box.
The Bottom Line
Now you know why oatmeal is a good post-workout meal or snack and why it’s an ideal way to start the morning too. If you’re trying to lose weight, oatmeal may help. A study showed that the beta-glucans in oatmeal boost the release of a satiety hormone called peptide y-y. Plus, if you eat it with a source of protein, like an egg, it’ll keep you full for hours. So, whether you enjoy it for breakfast or after a workout, oatmeal is chock full of health benefits.
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Eur J Appl Physiol. 2016 Jan;116(1):67-76. doi: 10.1007/s00421-015-3244-3. Epub 2015 Aug 20.
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