What is the greatest superfood on earth? Does one even exist? Well, that question remains to be seen…
Of all the foods we have available, there are always certain boxes we want to check off before we consider something a “superfood”. Does it have a healthy balance of macronutrients? Does it contain antioxidant properties? Does it contain rich sources of needed vitamins and minerals? Does even a small portion provide you with rich amounts of nutrients?
Well, oatmeal is high on the list of superfoods that offer various health benefits and checks a lot of those questions we just asked! Oats contain about 60% starch, 14% protein, 7% lipid, and 4% beta-glucan and are rich sources of fiber, vitamin E, and polyunsaturated fats.
Wheat, rice, and maize are the leading grains in terms of consumption, but oat is gaining popularity due to the many health benefits they can provide. Currently, the most common form of oat is Avena sativa L., more commonly known as white oat. Most commonly, oats are consumed in their most processed form, instant or quick oats. However, less processed seeds offer more nutritious benefits… something to keep in mind!
Need a healthy recommendation for friends, your nutrition clients, or just yourself? Try oatmeal! Be sure to check out the NASM mini course on healthy cooking at home for more nutrition tips and healthy meal ideas.
Low Risk, High Reward
Due to oats’ ability to protect against and decrease the risk of certain diseases/health conditions, oats are considered a functional food. This means oats offer health benefits beyond their nutritional profile. As mentioned previously, oats contain a well-balanced macronutrient composition of proteins, starch, and healthy fats. The nutritional component of oats that gains so much attention is the rich amounts of phytochemicals they contain.
Oats contain over 9 different phytochemicals! They are also an extremely rich source of Vitamin E, folate, zinc, iron, selenium, copper, manganese, carotenoids, betaine, choline, and sulfur.
Breaking down the nutritional composition of oats per 1/2 cup would yield:
- 26 grams of carbohydrates
- 6.5 grams of protein
- 2.5 grams of fat
- 4 grams of fiber
- 0.7 mg manganese (30% DV)
- 1.5mg zinc (13%)
- 7-45 mcg folate (depends on natural oats vs enriched oats)
- .1mg thiamin (8% DV)
- 1.2mg iron (~7% DV)
There has been so much talk about how healthy oats are, but what are the nutritional benefits they can provide?
Oats have cholesterol-lowering effects
Oats are very rich in fiber. Fiber can bind to cholesterol and fatty acids in the small intestine, so more are excreted instead of released into the bloodstream. This in turn reduces the amount of bile that is released (cholesterol is needed to make bile). Therefore, more cholesterol is used up for bile production instead of levels staying high within the bloodstream. Part of the fiber in oats is beta-glucans, and one study found that 1-10% consumption of B-glucans helped lower cholesterol in hypercholesterolemia patients (Hallfrish et al 1997).
Another study showed oat bran lowered total serum cholesterol by 23% with no effect on high-density lipoprotein levels (Anderson et al 1991).
Read also - Foods High in Fiber for more recommendations on fiber-rich foods.
Oats have anti-cancerous effects
Fiber contains short-chain fatty acids. Short-chain fatty acids modulate gene expression in the gut, essentially killing off cancerous cells. Additionally, oats are very rich in phytochemicals and Vitamin E — functional nutrients with major antioxidant properties. Studies in rats showed major decreases in oxidative stress levels when fed an oat-rich diet.
Avenanthramides (AVAs) are the most abundant phenolic alkaloids found in oats. Over 25 AVA compounds exist in oats and their antioxidant capacity not only helps lower harmful reactive oxygen species (ROS) in the body but can also help increase levels of glutathione.
Oats can decrease the risk of cardiovascular disease & diabetes
High levels of serum cholesterol and LDL proteins are known to significantly increase the risk of heart disease. Consumption of oats has been shown to significantly decrease blood pressure and blood lipids. In one study, 2 weeks of oat consumption (25g oat bran/day) decreased total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol by up to 8.5%.
Again, the levels of B-glucan in oats seem to slow the absorption of starch in the digestive tract, therefore preventing spikes in blood sugars and releases in insulin. Lowering spikes in blood sugar and total blood sugar is also a known benefit of oat consumption — something very useful for diabetic patients. Due to these very pronounced benefits, the FDA approves health claims on oat-containing products.
It is recommended that a minimum of 3g of b-glucan-containing oats should be consumed per day to reduce the risk of CVD and 4g of b-glucan-containing oats should be consumed in every 30 grams of carbohydrates for type 2 diabetics.
Oats can boost immunity
It has been seen in certain studies with mice that the B-glucan fibers in oats can help increase the cytokines needed to fight off infection. One study showed that mice fed oats were better able to fight off staph infections compared to mice on an oat-free diet.
Oats are important for gut health
Oats help promote a healthy microbiome. The fermentation of fiber in oats produces short-chain fatty acids. In short, these short-chain fatty acids act on various processes within the body to promote growth and function. The fiber content in oats is also important for healthy bowel function! Consumption of oats can be useful for individuals that struggle with constipation.
Additionally, by nature oats are gluten-free. Gluten is a protein found in grains such as wheat, barley, and rye. For individuals with gluten intolerances or celiac disease, oats can be digested without causing damage to the intestinal tract. However, many oats are processed in facilities with gluten-containing products, therefore cross-contamination is common.
So, should you eat oatmeal every day? That will largely depend on your personal preference! However, it would be safe to say that daily inclusion of oats in the diet can help promote healthy blood sugars, blood pressure, and gut health, and provide you with tons of energy! Even from a macronutrient composition, oats are rich in protein and fiber; two very filling nutrients.
When would be the best time to consume oats?
Ideally, oats would serve as a very balanced breakfast option or would serve as a great meal before engaging in any intense physical activity. The fiber content in oats will slow the digestion into the bloodstream, allowing for a more sustained release of energy during exercise. One cup of oats contains about 50g of carbohydrates, perfect energy for a 1–2-hour workout!
Are there any disadvantages to consuming a lot of oatmeal? Well, even healthy foods in excess can sometimes cause issues. While there are no definitive negative side effects of excess oatmeal consumption, some issues that can arise can be constipation (from too much fiber consumption) or weight gain (if oatmeal consumption is causing an excessive calorie surplus).
Overall, oats are an extremely nutritious, functional food you should include in your diet. Oats are a rich source of fiber, healthy fats, protein, b-vitamins, iron, folate, zinc, iron, and many other nutrients to help support a healthy gut, blood, cholesterol, and cardiovascular function. They are great to consume before exercise for a boost of energy, or a perfect breakfast meal to get your day started. Perhaps a cup of oats a day keeps the doctor away?