Remember oats? Before the term superfood had ever been uttered, oats were one of the earliest health foods. With research on heart health benefits dating back to the 1960s, oats have long been associated with middle-aged guys with cholesterol problems. Although this image might have made oats seem like the breakfast of bores, oatmeal is thankfully enjoying a second run in the spotlight as healthy living takes centre stage. This time, however, oats must compete for our warm-breakfast attention with the likes of buckwheat, quinoa, and amaranth while straining under its at-times confusing gluten-free status. But does the competition with newer, ultra-cool grains mean oats have become the nutrition equivalent of the VHS tape? Not at all: Oats might not be the only whole grain option out there, but they remain one of the best—and are by far the best studied. In fact, the more we learn about oats, the more impressive they become.
OATS: THE STORY
Oats, or Avena sativa, are a member of the Poaceae family, meaning that, unlike quinoa, amaranth, and buckwheat, they are a true cereal grain. Popular as porridge, in mixed breakfast cereals, or as an ingredient in baked goods and snack foods, oats are actually most commonly used to feed livestock, not humans. In England, oats served for centuries as fine dining for horses, but their capacity to tolerate cooler, rainier climates meant they eventually became a popular crop and nutritional staple for the Scottish and Irish people. According to Samuel Johnson’s 1755 Dictionary of the English Language, oats are defined as “a grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland appears to support the people.” It’s been said the Scots would then reply, “That’s why England has such great horses, and Scotland has such fine men!”
OATS: THE NUTRITION
Oats are one of the lowest-calorie grains: A cup of cooked oats (234 grams) provides 166 calories’ worth of energy, about a hundred less than comparable volumes of cooked amaranth or quinoa. You’ll also pick up 6 grams of protein and 4 grams of fibre from a cup of oatmeal (targets for dietary fibre range from 25 to 38 grams per day for an average adult). Lower in most B vitamins than quinoa or amaranth, oats are still one of the richest grain sources of vitamin B1, which is important for turning carbohydrates into energy, providing 12% of your daily needs (quinoa provides 13%, while amaranth provides only 2%). Likewise, while oats are lower in magnesium than some other whole grains (providing 16% of your daily requirements versus 30% for a cup of cooked quinoa), they still provide a respectable 12% of your iron, 16% of your zinc, 18% of your selenium, and 9% of your daily copper needs.
OATS: THE SCIENCE
Oats are one of the best-researched foods of any kind. Let’s take a look at just a sampling of the available research.
Oats and Cholesterol
The ability of oats to lower both total and the so-called bad (LDL) cholesterol is well established. The key nutrient appears to be beta-glucan, a type of fibre present in both oats and barley. Beta-glucan is from the family of fibres known as soluble fibre, which is believed to prevent the body from building new cholesterol while also binding cholesterol in the bowel, causing us to excrete it during our daily trip to the john. A recent meta-analysis found that a minimum of 3 grams of beta-glucan per day (about the amount you’ll obtain from a bowl of cooked oatmeal) is needed to have a significant impact on cholesterol, triggering a roughly 5% drop in total cholesterol and about a 7% drop in LDL cholesterol. In absolute values, a similar meta-analysis found that beta-glucan triggered an average drop in LDL cholesterol of about 0.66 mmol/L. To put those numbers into context, an individual at a low risk of experiencing a cardiovascular event (technically defined as someone who has less than a 10% chance of experiencing a heart attack, stroke, or angina in the next 10 years, according to what is known as the Framingham Risk Score) would be prescribed cholesterol-lowering medication if LDL cholesterol exceeds 5.0 mmol/L. Those at moderate risk (10% to 20% risk of experiencing a cardiovascular event in the next decade) are generally recommended medication when LDL exceeds 3.5, and high-risk individuals (with more than a 20% risk of a cardiac event in the next 10 years; that group automatically includes all people with type 2 diabetes) are recommended statin (cholesterol-lowering) drugs if their LDL exceeds 2.0 mmol/L. So, if the simple habit of eating oatmeal daily could bring a high-risk person’s LDL cholesterol down from 2.6 to 2.0 mmol/L, that could be a substantial enough change to keep some people off of medication. The effect might not be the same in all individuals (the healthier your diet is to start, the less of an effect you’ll usually see), but it emphasizes the fact that, sometimes, small changes to our habits can have a big effect on our health.
Oats and Blood Pressure
In addition to their cholesterol-lowering effect, oats may help with blood pressure control, possibly through either their fibre or magnesium content or both. In one particularly well-designed study, published by researchers at the University of Aberdeen in 2010, 206 healthy adults of various weights were asked to substitute three servings of refined grain products (such as white bread, pasta, or rice) with either three servings per day of whole wheat products or one serving of whole wheat and two servings of oats per day. The control group were told to continue with their usual diets. At the end of 12 weeks, the subjects in both the whole wheat and the whole-wheat-plus-oats groups saw their systolic blood pressure (that’s the top number) drop by between 5 and 6 points, a significant change versus those consuming the refined grains. Amazingly, that effect on systolic blood pressure is not far off what is seen in those who cut their salt (sodium) intake from high to low: In the classic research on the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet (an eating plan that is rich in blood-pressure-lowering nutrients, such as calcium, magnesium, and potassium as well as fibre-rich foods), slashing sodium intake resulted in an average drop in systolic blood pressure of about 11 points in those with high blood pressure (hypertension) and by 7 points in those whose blood pressure was normal. In other words, a person with normal blood pressure could see a similar drop in blood pressure by cutting sodium intake drastically or by substituting three servings of refined grains for whole grains and oats instead.Although some studies on adults without diabetes suggest that oats may improve blood sugar control, the results have been inconsistent.91 In one interesting study on people with type 2 diabetes admitted to hospital because of very poor blood sugar control, daily consumption of oats substantially improved glycemic (blood sugar) control, as well as reliance on insulin as medication, within just a few days, an effect that was even more pronounced than if they had been put on a traditional diabetes diet.
WHAT’S BETTER: STEEL-CUT OR INSTANT OATS?
With a sweeter taste than many grains, oats have made a popular breakfast cereal for centuries. Although the majority of oats contain both the nutrient-dense bran and germ, the oats themselves may be flattened (rolled) and steamed to help speed cooking. This process results in instant or quick-cooking rolled oats, which may be prepared in as little as one minute with boiling water. On the other hand, whole oats kernels, also known as groats, that have been sliced once or twice to allow water to access the grain for cooking are often called steel-cut or Irish oats. These oats require significantly longer cooking times (about 20 to 30 minutes) but have a nuttier, slightly crunchy taste that many people enjoy. The difference between the two, nutritionally speaking, isn’t hugely significant, but there may be a slight effect on glycemic, or blood sugar, response: Although instant oats (such as Quaker one-minute oats) have a glycemic index (GI) of about 66 (the glycemic index refers to the capacity of different foods to raise blood sugar, usually compared with pure glucose sugar), putting them in the moderate glycemic range (a food with a GI of 56 to 69, compared with pure glucose’s GI of 100, is considered moderate GI), slower-cooking oats have a GI in the low to mid-50s, putting them in the range of low-GI foods. The lesser blood sugar effect could not only be useful for people with diabetes who need to control their blood sugar but could also help healthy individuals feel full longer, and healthy blood sugar control might reduce their risk of chronic disease, especially type 2 diabetes, in the long run.
Oats and Cancer
A small but intriguing body of evidence suggests that oats could have an anticancer effect. So far, most of the data is in cell lines or animal studies, but a handful of studies conducted in Asia suggest beta-glu-can could extend survival rates and quality of life in those who have been diagnosed with cancer. Cell line studies also suggest that compounds unique to oats, known as avenanthramides (try saying that three times fast), may protect against the proliferation of colon cancer cells. Unfortunately, since there is little research in this area, we don’t yet have an idea of an optimal dose of oats or beta-glucan that could exert a benefit for prevention or treatment of cancer, but it at least suggests that this is an area to watch.
Oats and Dry Skin and Eczema
Although much of the research on food relates to its benefits for our insides, oats are a relatively uncommon food that has also been studied for its effect on our outsides—namely, our skin. Oats used in a liquid suspension, known as colloidal oatmeal, have a long history of use as a treatment for dry skin and eczema, also known as atopic dermatitis. The oatmeal not only acts as a natural moisturizer but also reduces inflammation and improves the skin’s natural barriers, which is important for minimizing the redness, itching, and cracking associated with eczema. A 2012 review conducted by researchers at the University of Louisville suggested that colloidal oatmeal can help reduce itchiness, dryness, and the amount of area affected for those with mild to moderate eczema for individuals of all ages, including infants and children.
Oats and Asthma
The timing of early food introduction for infants is thought to influence allergy, asthma, and eczema risk later in life. Although many public health agencies recommend exclusive breastfeeding for six months, there is some data to suggest that introducing certain foods before six months might actually be protective against allergies and associated conditions. In recent years, a group of Finnish researchers have examined this relationship in several studies and have found that introducing oats between 5 and 5.5 months of age may be associated with a lower incidence of asthma later in childhood.
ARE OATS GLUTEN FREE?
Although oats were once thought to contain gluten, it is now understood that they do not; instead, it is cross-contamination with wheat, barley, or other gluten-containing grains that seems to trigger symptoms in those with celiac disease or the more recently defined non-celiac gluten sensitivity. Since the threshold for a food to be considered gluten free is very small (just 20 parts per million, or ppm), even the presence of other gluten-containing grains in the same facility as oats could often result in enough contamination with gluten to trigger symptoms in affected individuals. Fortunately, a handful of oat producers have taken steps to bring gluten-free oats to market, piggybacking on the Canadian Celiac Association’s 2007 Position Statement on Oats, which states that “consumption of pure, uncontaminated oats is safe in the amount of 50 to 70 grams per day (1/2 to 3/4 cup dry rolled oats) by adults and 20 to 25 grams per day (1/4 cup of dry rolled oats) by children with celiac disease.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Oatmeal might be the breakfast your grandma (or great-grandma) ate, but that doesn’t mean it’s passé. With potential health benefits ranging from cholesterol control to asthma prevention, oats and oatmeal have plenty to offer. Although perhaps not providing the same broad spectrum of nutrients as the likes of quinoa or amaranth, oats differ from the pseudocereals in their beta-glucan content, giving them a unique nutrition profile. So, whether it’s a warm bowl of porridge on a cold winter morning or a cup of cold overnight oats in the heat of the summer, there is good reason to include one of nature’s best cereal grains in your diet, both now and presumably for many years to come.