Oats and Health

Oats
Oats

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.
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Choose Healthier Protein Sources

Chicken Breast, Sage, Spinach
Chicken Breast with Sage and Spinach

The human body is made up of over ten thousand different proteins.  Protein’s building blocks are called amino acids.  Because our bodies are constantly making new proteins and because we do not store amino acids as we do fats, we need a daily supply of protein.

The Institute of Medicine determined that the daily protein intake be 10 – 35% of calories.  The Institute of Medicine also recommends 0.8 grams of dietary protein per kilogram of body weight or just over 7 grams per 20 pounds.  This translates to about 55 grams of dietary protein for a 150-pound person and 75 grams of dietary protein for a 200-pound person.  Many different foods contain protein.  These include fish, poultry, eggs, red meat, processed meat, nuts, seeds, vegetables, beans, whole grains, and dairy.  Because it is so easy to get protein, it is uncommon for western diets to have a protein deficiency.

Animal and Plant Proteins

Our bodies make protein in two different ways: Either from scratch or by modifying other amino acids.  A few amino acids must come from food.  These are called essential amino acids.

  • Animal protein contains all the amino acids we need, and they are called complete proteins.
  • Plant protein sources, such as fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts and seeds, lack at least one essential amino acid.  These are called incomplete proteins.

The Protein Package

Some high-protein foods are healthier than others because of what comes along with the protein.  This could be healthy or harmful fats, beneficial fiber, or hidden salt.  It is this “protein package” that is likely to differentiate one protein source as healthier than another.  For example, a 6-ounce broiled porterhouse steak has 40 grams of protein, but it also has a whopping 12 grams of saturated fat. That is 60 percent of the recommended saturated fat intake for a person on a 2,000 calorie per day diet.  Also a 6-ounce ham steak has only 2.5 grams of saturated fat, but it has 2,000 milligrams of sodium.  That is 500 milligrams more than the recommended maximum sodium intake.

On the other hand, a 6-ounce serving of wild salmon has 34 grams of protein, is naturally low in sodium, and has only 1.7 grams of saturated fat.  Salmon and other oily fish are excellent sources of heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids.  A cup of cooked lentils provides 18 grams of protein and 15 grams of fiber, and it has very little saturated fat and sodium.

If you like beef, choose the leanest cuts you can find.  Chicken, turkey, and fish are better choices.  Beans, nuts, whole grains and other plant sources are even better because they are generally low in saturated fat and high in fiber.  Also low-fat and non-fat dairy products are better than full-fat products.

So plant protein sources are healthier than animal sources because there protein package is healthier.  Because plant proteins are incomplete proteins, it is important to eat a variety of plant protein foods to get all of the amino acids needed to make new protein.

Putting it into Practice

  • Reel in Fish.  Seafood is important in a heart-healthy diet (particularly salmon, herring, and sardines).  Adding fish instead of red meat reduces saturated fat intake and increases omega-3 fats.  These marine omega-3 fats (EPA and DHA) improve blood cholesterol levels.  Aim for at least three servings per week.
  • Bulk up on Beans.  Beans contain soluble fiber which lowers the level of LDL (bad) cholesterol in your bloodstream.  LDL cholesterol causes plaque to build up in your arteries.  Beans also contain the minerals magnesium and potassium which help lower blood pressure.
  • Be a little Nutty.  Eat nuts and seeds to get plant protein along with unsaturated fats.  Try mixed nuts like walnuts, almonds, peanuts, pecans, and hazelnuts to get more nutrients.  Seeds like chia seeds and flaxseeds are also good sources of omega-3 fats.  Nuts and seeds are high in calories, so limit them to one to two ounces per day.
  • Go with Whole Grains.  In addition to protein, whole grains like brown rice, oats, quinoa, and whole wheat contain fiber which helps lower heart disease risk.
  • Choose Non-fat and Low-fat Dairy Products.  Full fat dairy is rich in saturated fat, which increases LDL cholesterol. Non-fat and low-fat dairy products are better choices.
  • Put that Steak Out to Pasture.  Like full fat dairy, red meat also contains a lot of saturated fat, which increases LDL cholesterol.  Limit red meat to a few servings per month.
  • Avoid Processed Meat.  Eating small amounts of processed red meat regularly has been linked to increased risk of heart disease.  They are also leaded with salt and added sugar.  Also the World Health Organization (WHO) recently announced that processed meats probably cause cancer.
  • Choose Poultry.  Turkey and chicken have less saturated fat than beef.  They are both good sources of protein.  Eat these instead of red meat.
  • Nutrient-rich Eggs.  Eggs are rich in vitamins and minerals, so eating up to four eggs a week is a good idea.  People with heart disease or diabetes may want to limit egg consumption to three a week.