The Health Benefits of Oats

by Dr. David Williams
Filed Under: General Health
Last Reviewed 02/06/2014

How to incorporate this humble food into your diet

Fiber has decreased dramatically as our food supply has become more and more processed. To make matters worse, diets like Atkins and South Beach often shun the complex carbohydrates that contain insoluble fiber or roughage. The most commonly consumed “vegetable” in this country is now French fries. Food manufacturers have increasingly removed insoluble fiber from processed foods, to both lessen the gritty texture and make ingredients easier to combine.

Insoluble fiber, the portion of the plant that can’t be broken down by your digestive system, provides a valuable service. The fiber absorbs water and swells, making the stool bulky, soft, and easy to pass. (This is why you always need to increase your water intake when you increase the fiber in your diet.) This natural bulk also gives feelings of fullness and satisfaction, resulting in less food intake.

Without adequate fiber, bowel movements are slow and toxic material remains in contact with the intestinal walls longer. The foreign material causes inflammation, and additional toxins are reabsorbed into your bloodstream. These additional toxins increase the workload of both your liver and kidneys.

Oats contain both soluble and insoluble fiber—8 grams total in one cup of uncooked oatmeal. They contain the highest proportion of soluble fiber (55 percent) of any food. The soluble fiber (fiber that dissolves in water) consists mostly of beta-glucan, which has numerous, very beneficial functions.

A Star Component

Beta-glucan is the fiber-like complex sugar found in the cell wall of baker’s yeast, oat and barley fiber, and many of the medicinal mushrooms that have become so popular as immune stimulants in the last few years. (For those of you more technically minded, oats contain a mixture of beta-1,3-glucan and beta-1,4-glucan. Yeast and mushrooms generally contain a mixture of beta-1,3-glucan and beta-1,6-glucan. Beans are also a good source of beta-glucan, and barley actually contains three times as much as oats.)

Beta-glucan’s two main benefits are cholesterol reduction and immune system enhancement.

When it comes to cholesterol, beta-glucan acts like a mop. It binds to cholesterol and moves it out of the body with the feces. Typically, after only about a month of eating oats, it’s not unusual to see a 10 percent drop in total cholesterol levels and a drop of 8 percent in the LDL form of cholesterol. At the same time, the “good” form of cholesterol, the HDL cholesterol, may increase as much as 18 percent. (Adv Exp Med Biol 90;270:119–127) (Eur J Clin Med 97;51:607–611) (Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr 99;39:189–202)

As I’m sure you’re aware, cholesterol is not a primary cause of heart disease, but it is a symptom. Many of the eating and lifestyle habits (such as eating oatmeal) that inherently lower your cholesterol levels have a direct link to reduced risks of heart and artery problems.

Beta-glucan—beta-1,3-glucan in particular—has been shown to be effective at activating your body’s first line of defense against foreign pathogens. Beta-glucan activates the white blood cells known as macrophages and neutrophils. These are the natural killer cells and the “clean-up brigade” that recognize and destroy cancerous tumor cells, accelerate the repair of damaged tissue by removing cellular debris, and trigger additional components of the immune system. (Pathol Immunopathol Res 86;5:286–296) (Immunopharmacology 99;41:89–107) (Eur J Immunol 91;21:1755–1758)

Beta-glucans also appear to help stop the rapid elevation of blood sugar following a meal. In diabetics, this can be a godsend in helping control blood sugar levels. A cup of cooked oatmeal at breakfast can help to stabilize blood sugar levels throughout the day. Apparently one of the benefits of beta-glucan is to increase cells’ sensitivity to insulin, making them more efficient at mobilizing glucose or blood sugar. (J Am Diet Assoc 96;96:1254–1261) (Adv Exp Med Biol 90;270:119–127)

The Breakfast that Keeps on Giving

Oats contain a type of antioxidant referred to as avenanthramides. Studies have found that these antioxidants prevent free-radical damage to the LDL form of cholesterol. This alone helps explain how eating oats can significantly reduce your risk of developing heart disease. (J Nutr 04;134:1459–1466) (J Agric Food Chem 99;47:4888–4893 and 4894–4898) As a side note, it appears that when these special antioxidants in oats are combined with vitamin C, their ability to protect LDL cholesterol from oxidation is even greater. It might be a good idea to take your vitamin C with your bowl of oatmeal or have an orange or some orange juice at the same time.

Researchers at Tufts University have also found that these unique antioxidant compounds in oats had anti-inflammatory effects, and suppressed the molecules that allowed cells to attach to the walls of arteries. This attachment process is the first step in the formation of plaque that leads to atherosclerosis or clogging of the arteries.

This finding is very exciting. Not only does it show how atherosclerosis can be prevented at the earliest stage possible, but it also demonstrates that it can occur with an inexpensive, readily available, good-tasting, natural food like oatmeal. (Atherosclerosis 04;175:39–49)

To list all the benefits of oats would take a while. They provide a source of the vitamin E–like compounds called tocotrienols. They contain selenium, which is essential for the repair of damaged DNA and the prevention of various cancers, particularly colon cancer. They contain significant amounts of manganese, which helps strengthen tendons, ligaments, and other connective tissue.

I’ve talked about the benefits of oats in the past, but it seems like every year we discover more of their benefits. I urge you to start including oats in your diet. They are one of the few nutrient-rich foods that you can still easily find that haven’t been contaminated, overly processed, or denatured.

When you buy oats, don’t get instant oatmeal, which has already been partially cooked and often contains sugar, salt, or other ingredients. “Old-fashioned oats” take a little longer to cook, but the fifteen minutes will be well worth the wait.

Also, I wouldn’t buy oats in large quantities. The beneficial fats in oats can go rancid with time. Fresh oats should smell fresh. Generally, if they are in an airtight container in a cool, dry, dark area, you can expect them to last about two months. Mark the date of opening on the container and replace it after two months. A box of oats is inexpensive and, after all, we’re talking about a very potent “supplement” that can stop heart disease, boost the immune system, fight cancer, and eliminate a long list of other complaints (blood sugar problems, obesity, constipation, et cetera). Don’t risk losing these effects by eating year-old oatmeal!

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