Oats and Health


Oats is a type of cereal grain from the Poaceae grass family of plants.  The grain refers specifically to the edible seeds of oat grass, which is what ends up in our breakfast bowls.  Oats are most prized for their nutritional value and health benefits.  In fact the Food and Drug Administration allows the use of a health claim on food labels associating reduced risk of coronary heart disease with the consumption of beta-glucan soluble fiber from whole grain oats.  Oatmeal is also a desired asset to those trying to lose weight and control hunger levels due to its high water and soluble fiber content.

Types of oats

Oats are available in a variety of forms based on how they are processed.  The following list shows the types of oats in order of least to most processed.  Keep in mind that although the nutritional content of all the types are relatively similar, their effect on blood sugar is not.  The least processed oats, like groats or steel-cut, take longer to digest and therefore have a lower glycemic index than rolled or instant oats.

  • Oat Groats: The whole oat kernels that have been cleaned with only the inedible hulls removed.  Groats contain the intact germ, endosperm, and bran.
  • Steel-cut or Irish: Oat groats that have been cut into two or three smaller pieces using a steel blade.  The larger the pieces, the longer they will take to cook.
  • Scottish Oats: Oat groats that have been stone-ground into a meal creating a porridge-like texture when cooked.
  • Rolled or Old fashioned: Oat groats that have been steamed, rolled and flattened into flakes, and then dried to remove moisture so they are shelf-stable.
  • Quick or Instant: Oat groats that are steamed for a longer period and rolled into thinner pieces so that they can absorb water easily and cook very quickly.  Be aware that many brands of instant oats come sweetened or flavored, so be sure to check the ingredients for no added sugar.

Reasons to Eat Oats

1. Heart Disease

Beta-glucan, the primary soluble fiber in oats, has been shown to slow digestion, increase satiety, and suppress appetite.  Beta-glucan can bind with cholesterol-rich bile acids in the intestine and transport them through the digestive tract and eventually out of the body.  A scientific study found that eating 3 grams of beta-glucan soluble fiber daily from whole oats decreased blood cholesterol levels by 12 points.  Whole grain oats also contain antioxidants that help reduce chronic inflammation that are associated with cardiovascular disease.

2. Diabetes

Beta-glucan fiber can help prevent sharp rise in blood sugar and insulin levels after a meal, and may benefit gut health as the fiber is broken down and fermented by intestinal bacteria.  Though a carbohydrate-rich food, minimally processed whole grain oats can be incorporated in a diabetic diet.  The glycemic load of less processed oats like steel-cut is low to medium, while highly processed instant oats have a high glycemic load.

3. Digestive Health

Fiber contributes to regularity and the prevention of constipation.  Cereal fibers, as found in wheat bran and oat bran, are considered more effective than fiber from fruits and vegetables.  The breakdown and fermentation of beta-glucan oat fiber has also been reported to increase the diversity of gut microbiota.  This may improve certain digestive issues such as diarrhea and constipation.

Ways to Enjoy Oats

  • Oatmeal: A breakfast favorite.  Cooked oats pair well with fruit, nuts, and seeds.  Generally, less-processed oats such as steel-cut oats take 25 -30 minutes to cook, whereas instant oats take 1-2 minutes.
  • Oat Flour: These are oats that have been ground to a flour-like consistency.  Oat flour lacks gluten, and gluten adds structure, moisture, and volume to a baked product.  Without gluten, cookies would crumble and breads would become dense and lack volume.  However, oat flour can add chewiness to cookies and a boost of nutrients to breads.  Substitute 25-30% of flour in a recipe with oat flour for best results.
  • Oat Risotto: Oats are also delicious in savory dishes.  An example is replacing rice in risotto with whole oat groats or steel-cut oats.  Typically, the oats are first toasted in hot oil with aromatics like shallots or diced onion.  Then stock and/or water are added, 1 cup at a time, stirring well after each addition, until the oats are cooked (about 25 minutes).
  • Oat Bran: Oat bran, which contains the most fiber in a groat, is also removed and eaten as a cereal or added to recipes to boost fiber content.  Add 2-3 tablespoons of oat bran to any hot or cold cereal.

Go With The (Whole) Grains

Whole Grain Bread
Whole Grain Bread

Grains are seeds of grasses cultivated for food.  They basically come in two varieties – whole grains and refined grains.  Whole grains are intact seeds with their bran, germ, and endosperm.  Click here to see a whole grain.  The bran is the outer layer of the seed and contains mostly fiber.  The endosperm is the largest part of the seed and contains small amounts of vitamins and minerals.  The germ is the part of the seed from which a new plant sprouts and is a concentrated source of nutrients.   Examples of whole grains (and foods made from them) are wheat berries, whole wheat bread, rolled oats, steel-cut oats, brown rice, buckwheat, quinoa, bulgur, millet, barley, cornmeal, and rye.

Refined grains, on the other hand, usually have their bran and germ removed in the milling process leaving only the endosperm.  This is done to give the grain a finer texture and a longer shelf-life.  Examples of refined grains are white rice, white flour, de-germed cornmeal, and white bread.  Most refined grains are enriched, which means certain B vitamins and iron are added back after milling.  However fiber is not added back to enriched grains.  Whole grains are healthier choices than refined grains.

Why Are Whole Grains Healthier?

  • Whole grains are healthier because they contain more fiber than refined grains.  High fiber diets are associated with lower cholesterol levels and a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease.
  • The fiber in whole grains also helps prevent constipation and diverticular disease (diverticulosis).
  • Whole grains contain more nutrients than refined grains.  Some or these nutrients are magnesium, selenium, iron, vitamin E, and some B vitamins (riboflavin, folate, thiamin, niacin).  These nutrients are important in many biological functions like metabolism, a healthy nervous system, a healthy immune system, carrying oxygen in the blood, helping the body form red blood cells, and building bones.
  • The body also digests whole grains slower than refined grains preventing blood sugar and insulin levels from rising and falling too quickly.  This better control of blood sugar and insulin can delay hunger and prevent the development of type 2 diabetes and heart disease.

A Word of Caution

If you are a woman who is pregnant or could become pregnant, you need to make sure you get enough folic acid.  Folic acid is a B vitamin that is important in preventing certain types of birth defects.  You can get folic acid from taking a multivitamin pill everyday and also from using enriched grains that have been fortified with folic acid.  You should talk to your doctor about how much folic acid you need, and how you should get it.

Tips To Help You Eat Whole Grains

  • Eat whole grains for breakfast.  Start the day with a bowl of whole-grain cereal.  If you like hot cereals, try old-fashioned or steel-cut oats.  You can also cook whole grains to make a hot breakfast cereal or porridge.  If you prefer cold cereal, look at the ingredients list to make sure the first ingredient is a whole grain.  Shredded wheat is a good whole grain cereal.
  • Try whole-grain breads.  Choose breads made from whole grains instead of from refined grains.  Check the label to make sure the first ingredient has the word “whole.”  Breads are often high in sodium so do not eat too much.
  • Try whole-grain bagels.  Instead of plain bagels, try whole-grain bagels.
  • Try brown rice.  Cook up some brown rice instead of white rice to accompany a meal.  You could also cook other whole grains like bulgur, quinoa, buckwheat, millet, or hulled barley as tasty side dishes.
  • Try whole-wheat pasta.  Whole wheat pasta can be a delicious alternative to plain pasta.
  • Try whole grains in soups.  Feature whole grains like wild rice and barley in soups, stews, casseroles, and salads.
  • Snack on popcorn.  Popcorn is a whole grain and is a healthy snack when made with little or no  added salt or butter.
  • Bake with whole-wheat flour.  If you bake, try whole-wheat flour instead of white flour.

Eating a variety of whole grains ensures you get more nutrients and also makes your meals and snacks more interesting.