Oats are one of the hardiest cereal grains. Unlike most other crops, this plant is able to withstand poor soil conditions and thrive.
The oats we eat today originate from the wild red oat in Asia. Before being consumed as food, oats were used for medicinal purposes and are still used for that purpose today. Oat consumption is widespread in Europe and has been a staple for years in European diets. In the early 17th century Scottish settlers introduced oats to Americans. Today, the United States is one of the largest commercial producers of oats along with Russia, Germany, Poland and Finland.
Once harvested, oats are cleaned and hulled. Oats are considered a whole grain because this process does not strip away the bran and germ. After hulling, oats are roasted which imparts their distinctive flavor. From here, different processing creates a variety of oat products including:
Oat Grouts – Unflattened oat kernels used for breakfast cereals or stuffing
Steel Cut Oats – Steel blades thinly slice the grain; notable for dense, chewy texture
Old-Fashioned Oats – Grain is steamed then rolled, creating a flatter shaped oat
Quick-Cooking Oats – Similar process to Old Fashioned Oats but cut finely before rolling to create a product that cooks faster
Instant Oatmeal – Grains are partially cooked and then rolled to make them very thin; results in faster cooking product
Oat Bran – The outer layer of the grain that resides in the hull; incorporated into some products or sold separately
Oat Flour – Used for baking; often combined with other gluten-containing flours
A cup of plain oatmeal (without added butter, cream, sugar or salt) has just 166 calories. The majority of these calories come from carbohydrates in the form of starch but this serving also offers 4 grams of fiber and 6 grams of protein. While a serving contains 4 grams of fat, the majority is from health-promoting unsaturated sources. In its natural form, oats contain virtually no sodium (9 mg).
Oatmeal is a good source of the B-vitamins thiamin, pantothenic acid and folate. This whole grain is also an excellent source of the minerals iron, magnesium, zinc and selenium. Oatmeal is particularly high in manganese, providing 68% of daily values in a single serving.
Many chain restaurants including Starbucks and McDonald’s sell oatmeal. While this may sound like a healthy way to grab breakfast on the go, caution is advised. Reading labels and nutrition data is crucial because most pre-packaged and prepared oats have added sugar, fat and sodium.
For example, a serving of McDonald’s oatmeal (about a cup) has 290 calories, 57 grams of carbohydrates and 160 mg of sodium! Dried cranberries and raisins boost the sugar content. A serving of Starbucks oatmeal, which is about one quarter of a cup, has 140 calories and 105 mg of sodium. To limit the damage, ask for extras on the side so you can add as you wish.
Oatmeal is best when prepared at home since you decide what extra ingredients to include. Some healthy recommendations include apple or pear chunks, walnuts and cinnamon. Quaker Oats offers a wide variety of oatmeal products. The best options are Old Fashioned Oatmeal or Quick Oats. McCann’s Irish Oatmeal also offers a number of steel cut, quick cooking and instant oatmeal products.
Oats are one of the healthiest grains to incorporate into your diet. Oats, oat bran and oatmeal contain a type of soluble fiber known as beta-glucan which helps to lower cholesterol. Numerous studies have documented the beneficial effects of this special fiber on cholesterol levels. In individuals with high total cholesterol (>220 mg/dL), consuming just 3 grams of soluble oat fiber per day (amount in a bowl of oatmeal), lowers total cholesterol by 8-23%.
Given the strong scientific evidence, the FDA allows foods that contain either whole oats or beta-glucan soluble fiber from whole oat sources are allowed to make the following health claim on packaging: “Soluble fiber from foods such as [name of soluble fiber source], as part of a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol, may reduce the risk of heart disease. A serving of [name of food product] supplies __ grams of the [necessary daily dietary intake for the benefit] soluble fiber from [name of soluble fiber source] necessary per day to have this effect.”
Oats have become a staple in most American diets partly due to the marketing efforts throughout the years by Quaker Oats in highlighting the cholesterol lowering health benefits of oatmeal. General Mills has also promoted oats by obtaining the American Heart Association seal of approval on its brands like Cheerios.
Oats contain a number of phytonutrients including avenanthramides. These antioxidant compounds help prevent free-radicals from damaging LDL cholesterol thereby reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease.
Eating oats helps stabilize blood sugar which is good news for people with Type 2 diabetes. If you start your day off with oats or other blood stabilizing foods you can maintain your blood sugar levels throughout the day.
Selection & Storage
Although harvested in the fall, oats are available throughout the year and found in a wide variety of product forms including oatmeal, oat cereal and snack bars. In general, the less processed and packaged the oat product, the better it will be for your health as it will contain less sodium, sugars and fat.
Oats are best when purchased fresh. It is always a good idea to avoid buying oats in bulk since these grains are very susceptible to mold and moisture. Oats come in prepackaged containers as well as in bulk bins. When buying from bulk bins, make sure they are stored in covered bins, free from debris. If buying in bulk, purchase from a store that has a high turnover of product (e.g., Whole Foods).
To ensure maximize freshness, store oats in an airtight container in a dark cool place like a pantry or cupboard. They will stay fresh this way for about two to six months. You can also place them in the freezer in an airtight container where they can stay fresh for a year.
Adding oats into your daily life is very simple. You can sprinkle oat bran on your yogurt with fruit or make a big bowl of oatmeal for breakfast. Oatmeal cookies can be a sweet way to add oats into your diet.
When preparing oats, remember that each variety has different cooking methods. For all types of oats, it is best to add them to cold water and cook at a simmer. When preparing rolled and steel-cut oats, use two parts water to one part oats. Rolled oats cook faster than steel oats (15 minutes vs. 30 minutes, respectively). Oat groats require more time and more water. Use three parts water to one part groats and simmer for about 50 minutes.
Oatmeal is the perfect meal to eat in the morning especially during the cold winter months. If you have a slow cooker you can prepare them at night and wake up to a fresh warm bowl of oatmeal. Oats are also the perfect addition to any granola. It is easy to make and you can always get creative and add different items each time you make it like cranberries and almonds. Instead of baking oatmeal cookies, why not try Date-Oat Muffins? In addition to oats, this recipe uses flax seeds and walnuts which boosts the nutritional content.
Oatmeal Month is celebrated each January, the month in which we buy more oatmeal than any other month of the year. Eighty percent of U.S. households have oatmeal in their cupboard. The most popular oatmeal topping is milk. Oatmeal cookies are the No. 1 non-cereal usage for oatmeal. For other interesting facts, visit the North American Millers’ Association website.
David H. Rahm, M.D. is the founder and medical director of The Wellness Center, a medical clinic located in Long Beach, CA. Dr. Rahm is also president and medical director of VitaMedica. Dr. Rahm is one of a select group of conventional medical doctors who have education and expertise in functional medicine and nutritional science. Over the past 20 years, Dr. Rahm has published articles in the plastic surgery literature and educated physicians about the importance of good peri-operative nutrition.