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.
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.