Oats are arguably the healthiest grain you can eat.
The humble oat fed Scotland for 100s of years. But now its more often relegated to an occasional breakfast ingredient.
But you shouldn’t pass over this delicious, multipurpose grain. Oats’ nutrition credentials are impressive.
A brief history of Oats
Farmers first cultivated oats in Northern Europe around 1500 BC (1). Originally an annoying weed, our bronze age ancestors realised oats grew better in their colder, wetter climate than wheat.
In fact, oats need a temperate climate to grow well. They don’t like intense heat or extreme cold. But they thrive in a cool damp climate. And they survive in very poor soils where other cereals won’t grow (2). A perfect crop for the peaty highland moorlands of Scotland. It’s no wonder they became a Scottish staple.
And they were Scotland’s primary grain crop from the middle ages until the 1800s. In 1801 oats were the main cereal eaten in Scotland (3). But in 1823, another Scottish tradition, whisky distilling, was legalised. Farmers switched to barley to reap higher profits (4). And by 1904 oats were less than 20% of all cereals eaten in Scotland. Still, a porridge drawer remained a common feature in Scottish kitchens until the mid-1900s. And today, oats remain a key ingredient of traditional Scottish foods like haggis, mealy pudding and black pudding.
Know your Oats
Go into a supermarket and the only oats you’ll find are oat flakes, also known as porridge oats. But according to my local oat millers, John Hogarth LTD, there are seven ways to mill oats.
If you’ve only room in your cupboards for one pack of oats, I’d recommend you choose medium ground oats. They’re the most versatile. And they make the best porridge. It’s worth a trip to your nearest health food shop to stock up. Or you can buy medium oatmeal online here.
7 Oats’ nutrition highlights
Oats are arguably the most nutritious cereals you can eat. They’re a great source of a host of essential nutrients.
The humble oat packs in more nutrients than other more widely eaten cereals. Compared to wheat, rye and rice, oats’ nutrition stats are
- higher in protein
- higher in fat – especially monounsaturated fats
- a better source of iron (and most other minerals)
- a superior source of most B vitamins
- higher in vitamin E
- the only cereal to contain a group of antioxidants known as
- high in beta-glucan fibre
Oats’ healthy secret – Beta-Glucan
Like other whole grains, oats are high in fibre. But what raises oats head and shoulders above the rest is their sky-high beta-glucan content (5). Beta-glucan is a soluble fibre that’s known to reduce the risk of cardiovascular and other diseases. The high beta-glucan content of oats is responsible for many of the health benefits of eating oats.
5 known health benefits of Beta-glucan
- lowers cholesterol
- helps control blood sugar and insulin levels
- lowers blood pressure
- aids weight control
- helps maintain a healthy gut
Oats really are good for you – and good for your heart.
Oat beta-glucan lowers cholesterol
High cholesterol increases your risk of cardiovascular disease. Eating oats
Around 3g of oat
The amount of beta-glucan in oats can vary between 1.8-7% according to the oat variety, cultivation and storage. But 50g of oats per day – about one medium bowl of porridge – is enough to significantly lower cholesterol (7).
Try my traditional Scottish porridge recipe that contains enough beta-glucan to help lower cholesterol here.
How does beta-glucan lower cholesterol?
Your liver uses cholesterol to produce bile. The bile is released into your small intestine to help digestion. It’s then reabsorbed to be used again later. Your body will reuse the bile and the cholesterol it contains around twenty times. This is called the enterohepatic recirculation of bile.
Beta-glucan binds with the bile in your intestine and prevents its reabsorption. The enterohepatic recirculation is interrupted. Your body can’t reuse the cholesterol. Instead, it has to replace it. And your blood cholesterol drops (8).
And the cholesterol-lowering effects can be rapid – as little as two weeks is all it takes (9)
The evidence is strong. Strong enough for the European Commission to allow food manufacturers to make the health claim,
oat beta-glucans contribute to the maintenance of normal blood cholesterol levels” (10).
Oat beta-glucan helps control blood sugar
How does oat beta-glucan help control blood sugar?
The beta-glucan thickens the consistency of food in your gut. This has two beneficial effects.
- it causes your stomach to empty more slowly
- it slows down the absorption of carbohydrates
The European Commission recognises the beneficial effects of oat at beta-glucan on blood sugar levels.
Consumption of beta-glucans from oats as part of a meal contributes to the reduction of the blood glucose rise after that meal.” (12)
If you’re diabetic or your doctor’s told you that you’re at risk of developing diabetes, including oats in your diet can be beneficial. (13) .
Oat beta-glucan lowers blood pressure
Hypertension or high blood pressure is the silent killer. Silent because it increases the risk of stroke and heart attack but is often undiagnosed. Many people with hypertension are unaware they have it.
Eating more fibre is helps lower blood pressure (14). But beta-glucan causes a larger reduction than other fibre types (15). And this effect is found across the board, including otherwise healthy individuals.
Eating oats can help you avoid hypertension and reduce the risk of a heart attack or stroke.
Oat beta-glucan can help with weight control
Oats keep you feeling fuller for longer (16) Because beta-glucan slows down the emptying of your stomach. A fuller stomach keeps you feeling satisfied for longer. And your appetite is reduced.
Eating oat beta-glucan may also raise levels of the appetite control hormone Peptide Y-Y (17). And this may help to suppress your appetite.
If you’re trying to lose weight or even maintain your current body weight, adding oats to your diet can help.
Oats are a prebiotic
Your gut is an ecosystem containing billions of bacteria. And what you eat can dramatically and rapidly alter the balance of that ecosystem. If the balance of bacteria is unhealthy it can lead to diseases like bowel cancer.
Eating prebiotic foods helps to maintain a healthy gut microbe ecosystem. When you eat them the prebiotics contained pass undigested to your colon. Once in the colon, prebiotics encourage the growth of beneficial gut bacteria. These good gut bacteria ferment the prebiotic and produce short chain fatty acids. And short chain fatty acids are known to protect against bowel cancer.
Soluble fibres are well-known prebiotics. And eating oatmeal porridge, with its high beta-glucan content, daily for a week can improve your gut bacteria ecosystem (18).
Avenanthramides – Oats unique anti-oxidants
Oats are one of the few foods and the only cereal to contain a
But as with most antioxidants, these effects have only been demonstrated in the lab and not in humans.
Porridge isn’t the only way to eat oats!
With so many health benefits, you really should try to include oats in your diet. They are cheap, versatile and delicious.
Yet when you think of oats or oatmeal I’m sure your first thought is porridge. Or maybe oatcakes. Both great ways to eat oats, but there are so many other ways to introduce this wonderful grain into your diet. It will add a unique flavour and texture to so many dishes.
12 ways to eat oats that aren’t porridge.
- Muesli – make your own muesli and add toasted rolled oats to the mix
- Bircher – the Swiss overnight soaked muesli
- Scotch broth – the traditional soup thickened with oatmeal and barley
- Coat delicate fish like cod in oatmeal instead of breadcrumbs
- Roast a rack of lamb with an oatmeal crust
- Oatmeal and onion stuffing to go with a Sunday roast or in beef olives
- Thicken a hearty stew with fine oatmeal for a rustic gravy
- Oatmeal polenta – taking traditional, fried porridge slices to new delicious heights
- Bread – adding oatmeal to a bread dough gives it a wonderfully nutty flavour – and the bread will keep fresh for longer too
- Oat biscuits – classic comfort food
- Flapjacks – a sweet and sticky treat
- Fruit crumble – oat flakes in the topping for added texture
Time to get cooking with oats
I’m a big fan of porridge. But I hope I’ve persuaded you that there are many other ways you can cook with oats. Because oats aren’t just for porridge. They’re delicious and versatile. And they’re probably the healthiest whole grain you can eat. Isn’t it time you brought them into your kitchen?
Your heart will thank you.
Hi, I’m Ralph – a nutritionist with over 25 years’ experience as a professional chef. I’m based in Edinburgh where I provide one-to-one nutrition coaching. If you’re not in Edinburgh I can help you online.