What to put in oatmeal to build the healthiest bowl: Here's a step-by-step guide

When you roll out of bed on a cold winter’s day, sometimes the only thing that’ll start the morning off right is a nice warm meal. Maybe that includes a steaming mug of coffee or tea, warm pancakes with melty chocolate chips or a bowl of oatmeal.

The healthiest breakfast is one that includes the nutritional trifecta of protein, healthy fats and complex carbohydrates to keep you full until the next meal, experts previously told USA TODAY.

So how does oatmeal measure up? Here’s how to build the healthiest bowl.

What is the healthiest oatmeal?

The healthiest oatmeal is less about the type of oat and more about how you make it, according to registered dietitian Jamie Nadeau.

Steel-cut oats, quick oats, rolled oats – they’re all nutritionally pretty similar, Nadeau says. The biggest difference is the texture. Steel-cut oats take longer to cook and are chewier. Instant oats will cook faster but are more mushy.

Oatmeal does contain protein – a little more than 10 grams per cup – but adding extra protein, fiber and other nutrients will keep you full for longer.

“Just like any carbohydrate by itself, it’s probably not going to keep you super full on its own but as a part of a balanced meal it’s a great option,” she says.

First, start with your base. Nadeau recommends milk instead of water because it adds protein and makes the oatmeal creamier.

Next, look to protein. Try Greek yogurt, which has about 13 grams of protein per cup or peanut butter, which also packs in fiber and healthy fats. Consider adding a couple of hardboiled eggs on the side or mixing them in while you’re cooking, which adds extra protein without tasting funky.

“When your oats are fully cooked you can slowly – slowly is the key so you don’t scramble your eggs – stir in egg whites and it makes this delicious, really fluffy oatmeal,” Nadeau says.

Finally, look for extra nutrients in your toppings. Fresh fruit will add fiber, vitamins, minerals and some sweetness to your oatmeal. Fruit's fat-soluble vitamins like A, E and K will best absorb if you add in a fat source like nuts, which will also add extra fiber and protein.

Is instant oatmeal good for you?

Instant oats are nutritionally comparable to other oats, but it's the added ingredients you need to watch out for, Nadeau says. Because oatmeal is bland on its own, many sweeten it with large amounts of brown and white sugar. Instant packets are already sweetened, so it’s hard to control how much added sugar is in your oatmeal. With the sugar in the rest of the day’s meals, this can quickly add up past the daily recommended limit.

Nadeau recommends buying plain instant oats and sweetening them yourself.

Is oatmeal good for you?

Yes – oatmeal is a healthy source of protein, fiber, iron, folate, copper, zinc and B vitamins.

“It’s one of those foods that’s underrated, nutrition-wise,” Nadeau says.

Oatmeal also contains beta-glucan, a soluble fiber with several health benefits. One study found that eating 3 grams of beta-glucan soluble fiber from whole oats daily modestly decreased blood cholesterol levels. Oats are also a healthy option for those with diabetes because beta-glucan prevents sharp rises in blood sugar and insulin levels after eating.

If you’re looking to get more oats in your diet, check out these three recipes that put a creative spin on classic oatmeal:

Discover more health tips for your daily diet:

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Healthiest oatmeal? These recipes can help boost your nutrition