Oatmeal doesn't have to be that tasteless gray lump of hot, gluey, mushy stuff people remember from childhood. In the right hands, it can become a wintertime breakfast favorite -- warm, filling, flavorful and nutritious.

What makes dietitians so fond of oatmeal is its low-fat, high-fiber profile. In two-thirds of a cup of cooked cereal, there are about 2 grams of fat and 3.4 grams of fiber, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

"It replaces the bacon and eggs, doughnuts and danish, sausages and biscuits" said Bonnie Liebman, director of nutrition for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a health advocacy group. "There are very few other breakfasts you can eat that are as low in fat and are a good source of complex carbohydrates."

The popularity of oatmeal increased significantly after the publication of controversial studies linking a diet rich in oat bran with lower cholesterol. In 1989, for example, an estimated 73 million bushels of oats were processed food products -- mostly cereal, said Larry VanMeir, a USDA grain analyst. That figured jumped to 91 million in 1990, after the publication of research showing the health benefits of oat bran, he said.

While the National Cancer Institute recommends that Americans double or triple their daily intake of fiber from 10 grams to 20 or 30 to help prevent some forms of cancer, more research is needed to determine whether oat bran has any effect on cholesterol, said Liebman.

"I think people lost their sanity over oat bran," said Mindy Hermann, a registered dietitian with the American Dietetic Association. "Americans continue to jump on any new food craze that comes along, and common sense will tell you that you can't put that much oat bran into a pretzel, for example. They even came out with an oat bran beer. It was ridiculous."

Quaker Oats Co. in Chicago, with 61 percent of the $775 million hot cereal market, reported a 6 percent drop in sales last year, which company officials attributed to consumer reaction to the continuing scientific debate over the merits of oat bran.

Despite the question about oat bran, oatmeal itself remains a healthful breakfast alternative, provided people don't smother it with butter or lots of sugar. Suggested toppings include skim milk, dried or fresh fruit, honey and even small quantities of chopped nuts or a cinnamon and sugar mixture, said Hermann.

"It is a question of quantity," she added. "I would not get into the habit of pouring cream or half and half on oatmeal, but drizzling on a small amount of syrup would not be bad."

Beyond breakfast, American chefs are discovering what the Scots have known for centuries -- oats can add texture to both sweet and savory dishes. In addition to porridge -- their name for the hot breakfast dish -- the Scots use oats to thicken soups, make gingerbread, pancakes, scones and numerous other dishes.