If you’re looking for healthy carbs, you’ve found them in oats. This ancient grain is esteemed for its nutritional value and health benefits. Oats even have a health claim approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) – not an easy task.
Whether you want to support heart health, manage blood sugar, or control hunger, oats will be an asset. Oats are a type of “cereal grain” that comes from the Poaceae grass family of plants. The word “grain” refers to the edible seeds of the plant. The word cereal refers to the practice of growing the plants to acquire their grains. What ends up in your cereal bowl is the edible seed of oat grass.
A delicious bowl of good health
There is strong evidence that oats protect health. Interestingly, oats were the first food to receive a prestigious FDA health claim back in 1997. Initially, the claim was based on research showing whole oat consumption (oats, oat bran, and oat flour) reduced total cholesterol and low-density lipoproteins (LDL) cholesterol levels [source]. Evidence has continued to grow, showing numerous health benefits of oats.
1) Oats are nutrient-dense
Oats are packed full of nutrients. They provide fiber-rich carbs, healthy protein, and fat. Oats are also rich in phosphorus, thiamine, magnesium, and zinc [source]. 1 cup (81g) of raw oats contains – 307 calories, 10.7g protein, 5.28g fat, 54.8g carbohydrates, 8.18g fiber, and notable amounts of vitamins and minerals.
2) Lowers cholesterol
Eating just 3 grams of beta-glucan (β-glucan), a type of soluble fiber in oats, has been shown to help shuttle cholesterol through the digestive tract and out of the body. This is great news because even small reductions in cholesterol reduce the risk of heart disease.
A meta-analysis found a 12-point decrease in cholesterol levels in subjects eating 3 grams of β-glucan soluble fiber from whole oats daily [source]. Three bowls (28 g servings each) of whole-grain oatmeal would provide 3 grams of β-glucan soluble fiber.
3) Reduces blood pressure
Oats also appear to reduce blood pressure. One study found people eating 3-servings of the grains (including oats) each day for 12-weeks lowered blood pressure enough to reduce the incidence of coronary artery disease and stroke by 15-25% [source].
4) Diabetes support
Oats can be a great go-to-food for diabetics. Research has shown significant reductions in fasting blood sugar and hemoglobin A1c (a test that measures average blood sugar levels) in people with Type 2 diabetes that eat oats, oatmeal, or oat containing products.
Beta-glucan may be providing much of this support. It helps prevents spikes in blood sugar and insulin after eating [source 1, source 2]. It’s important to choose less processed versions that have a low GI.
5) Weight-loss support
Oats have been associated with reduced appetite and lower body weight. Soluble fibers appear to alter appetite control hormones (e.g., cholecystokinin, glucagon-like peptide 1, peptide YY and ghrelin) [source 1, source 2]. β-glucan, specifically, has been linked to appetite suppression, slower digestion, and increased satiety.
It attracts water creating bulk in the gut, which slows digestion and the rate nutrients are absorbed. This, in turn, fills you up and keeps you feeling full longer. Additionally, gut bacteria ferment β-glucan creating short-chain fatty acids, which may also increase satiety.
6) Digestive tract health
It is well known that fiber contributes to digestive tract health. Fiber bulks up the stool, which helps it pass through the gut with ease. But there are other benefits too. The fermentation of β-glucan oat fiber may also increase diversity in gut microbiota. This is great! Greater diversity leads to greater overall health – emotional and physical.
Pure oats are also gluten-free, which is terrific news for those on a gluten-free diet. Research has shown that people with celiac disease can typically tolerate gluten-free oats. But, many commercial brands are processed in facilities that also produce gluten-containing products. There is the possibility of cross-contamination.
7) Antioxidant power
Whole oats provide antioxidants. They contain polyphenolic compounds that have powerful antioxidant properties. Antioxidants fight damaging free radicals and help reduce inflammation. Inflammation is associated with chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes [source].
Whole oats contain an interesting type of polyphenol called avenanthramide. Its anti-inflammatory benefits may be why people have used oatmeal for centuries to reduce inflammation and soothe irritated skin [source].
Are there any cons?
There are very few adverse effects of eating oats. One was already mentioned regarding gluten. Those on gluten-free diets should choose gluten-free products. Other concerns can be gastrointestinal symptoms and drug interactions with fiber.
Gastrointestinal Symptoms. Some people experience bloating or gas when they increase dietary fiber intake quickly. The trick is to increase fiber-rich food like oats gradually along with increased fluid intake (~64 oz/day). Although rare, people with impaired intestinal motility or difficulty chewing have reported intestinal obstruction when consuming large amounts of oat bran.
Drug Interactions. Absorption of some drugs can be slowed when taken with gel-forming fibers, like β-glucan. Medications should be taken at least one hour before or two hours after eating gel-forming dietary fibers (e.g., oatmeal) [source].
Adding oats to your diet
Oatmeal. Oatmeal pairs well with nuts, seeds, and fruit. Less processed oat (steel cut) takes longer to prepare. If this is a problem for you, consider cooking them ahead of time in a slow cooker or adding them to a pot of boiling water and letting them sit overnight. Rolled oat can be prepared on the stovetop or a pressure cooker (e.g., Instant Pot) in minutes. Instant oats can be cooked in the microwave in a couple of minutes.
Overnight Oats. Overnight oats are a delicious and easy no-cook way to prepare oats. Simply add oats, liquid (e.g., nut milk) and chopped fruit into a glass jar. Additionally, seeds, nuts, and spices can be added. Seal the jar, shake it and refrigerated overnight or approximately four hours.
Oat Flour. Oat flour lacks gluten, so you can’t substitute it 1:1 for regular four in baked recipes. You might try substituting 25-30% of regular flour with oat flour in a recipe, which can boost nutrients in breads, muffins, pancakes, and cookies.
Oat bran. Sprinkle 2-3 tablespoons of oat bran on hot or cold cereal.
Oat Groats. Oat groats can be used to make stuffing for poultry and risotto.
Oatmeal Cookies. Oatmeal cookies are a delicious way to add oats to your diet.
Smoothies. Add rolled or instant oats to smoothies to add texture and fiber.
Types of oats
There are several types of oats. They are commonly rolled or crushed and eaten as oatmeal or used in granola, muesli, bread or baked goods. Surprisingly, the nutritional content between the different types is similar. But don’t let that fool into thinking they are equally healthy. The effects on blood sugar differ!
Oats with the least processing will take longer to digest and have a lower glycemic index (GI). Meaning the less processed versions don’t raise blood sugar (glucose) and insulin levels as quickly as their processed counterparts.
- Steel-cut and rolled oats fall into a GI of 50-65 (low GI = 55 or below, medium GI = 55-70).
- Instant oats fall into the 70-80 range (high).
Oats are a delicious way to boost your health. They are packed full of nutrients – protein, fiber, healthy fat, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. The nutrition profile is similar for each type, but the less processed varieties have a lower GI, and the instant versions often add sugar.
You aren’t limited to oatmeal for breakfast. Oats are an excellent choice at any time of day!