Oats (Avena sativa) are not new and exciting. They are not one of the so-called “superfoods”.
They’re not even very colourful.
But they are definitely a food full of nutrition and rich in health benefits.
The Nutritional Content of Oats (1,2)
1 cup (81 gm) of raw rolled oats contains;
10.7 grams protein
54.8 grams carbohydrates
0.8 grams sugar
8.8 grams fiber (33% of RDA)
5.3 grams fat
42 mg calcium
3.5 mg iron (19% of RDA)
2.9 mg manganese (147% of RDA)
112 mg magnesium (28% of RDA)
332 mg phosphorus (33% of RDA)
293 mg potassium
4.9 gm sodium
3 mg zinc (20% of RDA)
0.32 mg copper (16% of RDA)
23.4 mcg selenium (33% of RDA)
0.373 mg thiamin (Vitamin B1) (25% of RDA)
0.126 mg riboflavin (Vitamin B2)
0.911 mg niacin (Vitamin B3)
0.9 mg pantothenic acid (Vitamin B5) (9% of RDA)
0.081 mg pyridoxine (Vitamin B6)
25.9 mcg folate
32.7 mg choline
0.34 mg vitamin E
1.62 mcg vitamin K
146 mcg lutein + zeaxanthin
RDA means “Recommended Daily Amount” and is defined as the average daily dietary amount of a nutrient sufficient to meet its requirement in 97 to 98% of healthy individuals.
Note the number of RDAs for vitamins, minerals and fiber that are satisfied by simply eating one cup of oatmeal each morning.
A Closer Look At the Benefits of Eating Oats
The Protein and Amino Acid Content of Oats
Oats contain 15 to 20% protein, an amount that is relatively high compared with other major cereal/grain categories. (3) Additionally, the amino acid composition of oat protein is superior to that of many other grains through its healthy balance of amino acids. (4) Oats contain all nine essential amino acids (those that cannot be produced by the human body) including lysine, an amino acid essential for normal growth. (5)
Consumption of Oats Can Help Prevent Atherosclerosis (Coronary Heart Disease)
Research has revealed that avenanthramides, a notable group of phenolic compounds (bioactives) found almost solely in oats, increase the production of nitric oxide. Nitric oxide is a gas produced within blood vessels that helps to dilate (widen) the vessels and promotes better blood flow. The result is lower blood pressure levels which contribute to the prevention of atherosclerosis (the build-up of harmful plaques within the walls of blood vessels). (5,6) Avenanthramides also act as antioxidants which may inhibit inflammation from proteins like cytokines as well as reduce the attachment of molecules to blood vessel walls resulting in less plaque build-up. (6,7,8)
Other attributes of oats that help to reduce atherosclerosis include the following;
- A daily intake of 3 grams of oat ß-glucan (beta-glucan), a type of soluble fiber that is found in an unusually high amount in oats (and can be obtained from consuming just 100 grams of oats), has been shown to significantly lower blood levels of both total cholesterol and LDL-cholesterol with no change in the level of HDL-cholesterol. This effect is attributed to the increased thickness of the food mass in the small intestine that occurs with ß-glucan and which inhibits the absorption of lipids (fats) and cholesterol. (9,10,11,27)
- ß-glucan also binds with cholesterol-rich bile acids in the intestine, escorting them through the digestive tract and eventually out of the body as waste. Other body cholesterols are then broken down to replace them resulting in a net loss of cholesterols. (12)
- Bioactive antioxidant compounds in oats can prevent the oxidation of LDL-cholesterol, a process that escalates plaque build-up in the walls of blood vessels. (7)
The research behind these atherogenic-inhibiting effects from oats is so strong that the Food and Drug Administration in the United States allows a health claim to be put on food labels which associates reduced risk of coronary heart disease with eating ß-glucan soluble fiber from whole grain oats. (12,13)
Eating Oats Promotes Weight Loss and Reduces the Risk for Type-2 Diabetes
Oat consumption helps to keep blood sugars low, especially in people with type-2 diabetes. Eating oats also promotes weight loss. (11,14,15)
Once again, these effects come from ß-glucan fiber which has the ability to attract water, increasing the thickness of the stomach contents and turning them into a thick gel. Stomach emptying and the digestion of food in the stomach is subsequently delayed and so is the absorption of glucose (sugar) into the blood. This prevents precipitous spikes in blood glucose and their ensuing fall to low levels which cause hunger, the body’s reaction to low blood glucose. Instead, eating oatmeal creates a strong long-lasting feeling of stomach fullness and satisfaction, an important tool for lowering weight.
In addition, short-chain fatty acids are produced by the microbiome of the large intestine from the fermentation of the ß-glucan supplied by oats. (The microbiome is the group of tiny microbes that live in the large intestine and help us with the digestion and metabolism of food among other benefits.) Short-chain fatty acids add to satiety through a chain reaction of events that regulates appetite hormones. (15)
Studies looking at the effect of oat consumption on blood glucose levels conclude that oat consumption significantly improves both short-term and long-term blood glucose control and is associated with a lower risk of diabetes. (11, 14)
Oat Fiber Has Anti-Cancer Properties
ß-glucan can reduce the development of colon cancer. The large amounts of short-chain fatty acids such as butyrate produced from the fermentation of ß-glucan in the large intestine can affect gene expression and regulate cell death in the colon, both of which can hinder the onset of colon cancer. (5)
Oats Are a Great Source of Bioactives
Bioactive compounds are defined as compounds that are constituents in foods, other than those needed to meet basic human nutritional needs, that play a role in good health and preventing disease. Though our knowledge about bioactives is fairly recent and is continuing through ongoing studies, it appears that they can regulate metabolic processes resulting in the promotion of better health. (16)
Oats boast a wide range of bioactive elements including phenolic compounds, sterols, phytic acid, tocopherols, flavonoids and phytoestrogens. These compounds have a wide range of beneficial activities including antioxidant actions that help to prevent the production of free radicals during normal biological processes in our bodies. In so doing, bioactives can reduce the damaging effects of inflammation that are associated with the development of chronic diseases of aging such as cardiovascular disease, strokes, cancer and diabetes. Phenolic compounds can also act as a defense against harmful pathogens. (17,5,6,18)
Oat Fiber Increases the Diversity of the Gut Microbiome
Fermentation of the ß-glucan type of fiber found in oats is linked to increased diversity of the gut microbiome and can help to improve other gut issues such as diarrhea and irritable bowel syndrome. (19) Further to that, the unique chemical composition of oats with their distinctive Avenanthramide polyphenols, their unusually high levels of ß-glucan soluble fiber and their high lipid content seems to be involved in the strong beneficial effects of oats on the gut microbiota. Continuing studies are seeking to tease out the mechanisms behind these health benefits. (20)
Oats Are Soothing to the Skin
Oats have a long history of effective use directly on the skin for itchiness and other irritations. Studies show that oats have direct antioxidant and anti-inflammatory activity which may be some of the mechanisms for their skin benefits. (21,22)
Oats Can Play a Role in the Prevention of Asthma and Allergies
Early introduction of oats, wheat, rye and barley cereals to the diets of children seems to protect those children from developing asthma and allergies. (23)
Eating Oats Helps To Prevent Constipation
It is well known that fiber contributes to regular bowel movements and the prevention of constipation through increasing the weight and water content of the stool. Cereal fibers like oats are more effective in this outcome than fiber from fruits and vegetables. (19,24)
Types of Oats (13)
All oats are processed to some degree before they are sold as human food but the less processing the better when it comes to the health attributes of oats. Much of the nutritional content of oats is similar in all types of oats, but the more processing they undergo, the lower is their fiber content which allows quicker digestion and greater absorption of sugars.
Oat groats: This is the whole oat kernel minus the loose, inedible hull. They still contain the germ, endosperm and bran.
Oat Bran: The bran of oats, the outer layer of an oat groat, contains most of its fiber. It can be removed to produce a high-fiber product that can be eaten alone as a cereal or added to other foods.
Steel-Cut Oats (Irish oatmeal): These whole oat kernels have been sliced into two or three smaller pieces using a steel blade. Steel-cut oats contain the highest amount of fiber because they are the least processed. They take longer to cook and eventually turn into a creamy, chewy porridge.
Scottish Oats: These oat groats have been stone-ground into particles slightly larger than flour. When cooked they also become porridge.
Rolled or Old-Fashioned Oats: These oat groats have been steamed, then rolled into flat flakes and dried. They are easier and faster to cook but have slightly less fiber than steel-cut oats.
Quick or Instant Oats: These oat groats have been steamed for a long time then rolled into thinner pieces to allow them to absorb water more easily and cook quickly. They contain less fiber than all the other oat types. Also, watch out for sweeteners or flavours that are often added to these types of oats.
NOTE that oats are naturally gluten-free. However, they may be processed in a facility that also processes gluten-containing grains. If you have celiac disease be sure to use only certified gluten-free brands of oats.
How to Incorporate Oats into Your Daily Meals
Make Oatmeal: Choose less processed oats such as steel-cut oats or rolled/old-fashioned oats. Steel-cut oats can take 25 or 30 minutes to cook; rolled oats take 10 to 20 minutes; and instant oats take only one or two minutes. Both steel-cut and rolled oats are nutritious but rolled oats are slightly more quickly absorbed into the blood stream than steel-cut oats. (25)
An Easy Way to Enjoy Already Prepared Oats For Breakfast:
Overnight oats: If your mornings are busy and you have no time to prepare breakfast, try making Overnight Oats. This is quick and easy to do and a delicious morning meal will be ready and waiting for you when you wake up. (26)
In a medium-sized glass jar with a lid (ex: a Mason jar or similar canning jar) place the following ingredients;
½ cup rolled oats
½ to 1 cup of soy milk or other plant-sourced milk
1 tsp of maple syrup for sweetness
1 or 2 tablespoonsful of ground chia or flax seeds for their omega-3 fatty acids
A few nuts for taste and crunchiness
¼ tsp of turmeric for its bright colour and all the health benefits it offers (See my blog entitled “The Power of Turmeric”)
Tightly screw the lid on the jar and shake until all ingredients are mixed well. Refrigerate for at least four hours.
In the morning, mix the ingredients in the jar together and, if desired, add ½ cup of chopped fresh fruit (ex – bananas, melon, apple, grapes) or dried fruit (ex – raisins, cranberries).
Other ways to consume oats:
Oats can be easily ground into flour using a coffee grinder or food processor. Oat flour can be used in foods such as cookies or pancakes. Oat flour is also an excellent binder for plant-based burgers or lentil loaves.
Final Thoughts on Oats
The humble oat appears to be hiding its light under a bushel. If you haven’t already, perhaps you might rethink the role of oats in your diet. Oats are inexpensive and easy to store. They are nutrient dense and calorie poor. Oats have a plethora of health benefits to offer. Perhaps it’s time to embrace this grain.
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