Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
17 Aug

Are Oats Healthy?

You know how we say that grains exist on a spectrum of suitability, from “really bad” wheat to “not so terrible” rice? Well, what about the rest of ’em? They may be the most commonly consumed (and thus encountered) grains, but wheat and rice aren’t the only grains on the spectrum. Since I get a lot of email about oats, I figured they were a good choice for this post. Besides – though I was (and still mostly am) content to toss the lot of them on the “do not eat” pile, I think we’re better served by more nuanced positions regarding grains. Hence, my rice post. Hence, my post on traditionally prepared grains. And hence, today’s post on oats. Not everyone can avoid all grains at all times, and not everyone wants to avoid all grains at all times. For those situations, it makes sense to have a game plan, a way to “rank” foods.

Today, we’ll go over the various incarnations of the oat, along with any potential nutritional upsides or downsides. But first, what is an oat?

The common oat is a cereal grain, the seed of a species of grass called Avena sativa. Its ancient ancestor, Avena sterilis, was native to the Fertile Crescent in the Near East, but domesticated oats do best in cool, moist climates like regions of Europe and the United States. They first appeared in Swiss caves dated to the Bronze Age, and they remain a staple food crop in Scotland. The “whole grain” form of an oat is called a groat (the picture up above depicts whole oat groats) and is rarely sold as-is, except maybe as horse feed. Instead, they’re sold either as steel-cut, rolled, or instant oats.

Steel-cut oats are whole groats chopped into several pieces. Some of the bran flakes off, but some is retained. Steel-cut oats take longer to cook, contain the most nutrients (and antinutrients like phytic acid), and taste nuttier than conventional oats.

Rolled oats are steamed groats that have literally been rolled out and flattened, with the bran discarded. When most people think of “oats,” they’re thinking of rolled oats.

Instant oats are rolled, steamed, and precooked oats. They’re essentially the same as rolled oats, only often accompanied by sugary flavorings and rendered immediately edible by the addition of hot liquid.

The main problems with oats are the phytic acid and the avenin, a protein in the prolamine family (along with gluten from wheat, rye, and barley, and zein, from corn). As far as phytic acid (or phytate) goes, oats contain less than corn and brown rice but about the same amount as wheat. As you know from previous posts, phytate has the tendency to bind minerals and prevent their absorption. So, even if a grain is rich in minerals, the presence of phytate prevents their full absorption. Ingestion is not absorption, remember. As I understand it, you can, however, reduce or eliminate phytate by lactic fermentation. I’m not sure the degree to which phytate can be deactivated, but one study does show that consuming oats that underwent lactic fermentation resulted in increased iron absorption rather than reduced. Another source claims that simple soaking isn’t enough, since oats contain no phytase, which breaks down phytate. Instead, you’d have to incorporate a phytase-containing flour to do the work; a couple tablespoons of buckwheat appear to be an effective choice for that. Combining both lactic acid bacteria (whey, kefir, or yogurt), companion flour (buckwheat), water, and a warm room should take care of most of the phytate… but that’s a lot of work!

Avenin appears to have some of the same problems as gluten in certain sensitive individuals, although it doesn’t appear as if the problem is widespread or as serious. Kids with celiac disease produced oat avenin antibodies at a higher rate than kids without celiac, but neither group was on a gluten-free diet. When you put celiacs on a gluten-free diet, they don’t appear to show higher levels of avenin antibodies. It looks like once you remove gluten, other, potentially damaging proteins become far less dangerous. One study did find that some celiacs “failed” an oats challenge. Celiac patients ate certified gluten-free oats (quick note: oats are often cross-contaminated with gluten, so if you’re going to experiment with oats, make sure they’re certified gluten-free), and several showed signs of intestinal permeability, with one patient suffering all-out villous atrophy, or breakdown of the intestinal villi. A few out of nineteen patients doesn’t sound too bad, but it shows that there’s a potential for cross-reactivity.

Why do oats get so much praise from health organizations, particularly from the American Heart Association (whose coat of arms boxes of Quaker Oats proudly display)?

Well, oats contain a specific type of soluble fiber called beta-glucan that increases bile acid excretion. As bile acid is excreted, so too is any serum cholesterol that’s bound up in the bile. The effect is a significant reduction in serum cholesterol. In rats with a genetic defect in the LDL receptor gene – their ability to clear LDL from the blood is severely hampered – there’s some evidence that oat bran is protective against atherosclerosis. Of course, the very same type of LDL-receptor-defective mice get similar protection from a diet high in yellow and green vegetables, so it’s not as if oat bran is a magical substance. Like other prebiotic fibers, oat bran also increases butyrate production (in pigs, at least), which is a beneficial short-chain fatty acid produced by fermentation of fibers by gut flora with a host of nice effects. Overall, I think these studies show that soluble fiber that comes in food form is a good thing to have, but I’m not sure they show that said fiber needs to come from oats.

Oats also appear to have a decent nutrient profile, although one wonders how bioavailable those minerals are without proper processing. A 100 gram serving of oats contains:

  • 389 calories
  • 16.9 grams protein
  • 66 grams carbohydrate
  • 10.6 grams fiber (with just under half soluble)
  • 7 grams fat (about half PUFA and half MUFA)
  • 4.72 mg iron
  • 177 mg magnesium
  • 3.97 mg zinc
  • 0.6 mg copper
  • 4.9 mg manganese

Oatmeal is a perfect example of the essentially tasteless, but oddly comforting food that’s difficult to give up (judging from all the emails I get). It’s tough to explain, because it’s not like oatmeal is particularly delicious. It’s bland, unless you really dress it up. No, I suspect it’s more than taste. I myself have fond childhood memories of big warm bowls of oat porridge steaming on the breakfast table. I’d add brown sugar, dig in, and head out to adventure through blustery New England mornings with a brick of pulverized oats in my happy belly. The nostalgia persists today, even though I don’t eat the stuff and have no real desire to do so. Heck, seeing Wilfred Brimley’s diabetes awareness TV spots still makes me think of those bowls of oatmeal and all the playing they fueled. Maybe it’s a combination of nostalgia and physical satiation?

Still, since I had some steel-cut oats laying around the house from a past houseguest who absolutely needed his oats, I decided to give them a shot. To self-experiment. To – gasp! – willingly and deliberately eat some whole grains. McCann’s Irish oats, they were. Raw, not steamed, and of presumably high quality. I’d been researching this post, and I came across an interesting thread on Paleohacks in which a recipe for baked oatmeal was described. Go ahead and check it out. I followed it exactly, soaking the oats in an acidic medium (Greek yogurt) and adding the buckwheat flour, which I made a special trip to the store for. When it was done cooking, I added a bunch of blueberries and some grass-fed butter, a touch of salt and a few shakes of cinnamon, and the Paleohacks poster was right: it did make the kitchen smell great. I sat down to eat my bowl. I’d been on a long hike that morning and I had done some heavy lifting as it baked, so I felt like I was as ready as I’d ever be.

It was… okay. The liberal amount of butter I added quickly disappeared without a trace, and I had to stop myself from adding more because that would have been the rest of the stick. The berries and cinnamon looked and smelled great, but they were swallowed by the blandness. I even added a tablespoon of honey but couldn’t taste it. It was satisfying in the sense that it provided bulk in my stomach. A half hour after, I felt kinda off. It’s hard to describe. A spacey, detached feeling? Slightly drugged? However you want to describe it, it didn’t feel right. Only lasted half an hour or so, though. My digestion was fine (hat tip to Jack Kronk and his Paleohacks recipe for getting that part right), and I never felt bloated besides the initial “brick in the stomach” feeling.

That’s my take on oats. Better than wheat, worse (and more work to improve) than rice. I won’t be eating them because I frankly don’t enjoy them, there are numerous other food options that are superior to oats, and I don’t dig the weird headspace they gave me, but I’ll admit that they aren’t as bad as wheat. If I want starch, I’ll go for some sweet potatoes.

What about you folks? Do you eat oats? Would you be willing to soak, ferment, and cook them? Let me know how it works, or worked, out for you!

Photo credit: deedoucette Flickr Photo

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. I eat rolled oats dry mixed with fresh fruit, ones that are tasty and not too sweet thus I do not get the feeling of high sugar and its effect,I feel comfortable.I am sure that if you adulterate the oats with this and that then I am sure the result will not be as good, so KISS (the oats) and feel good.

    aoknponte wrote on September 13th, 2011
  2. XD I loved this article. I can’t stand oatmeal, I think it’s really gross. Not only is it bland, but the texture is usually enough to make me gag. >.>

    Yvette wrote on September 16th, 2011
  3. I’ve noticed the one commonality that everyone has talked about was about having oats for breakfast, which has traditionally been a sugar soaked carbfest. No one’s mentioned about having a savory, not sweet, version of them.

    I don’t eat oats much at all, but I, maybe every few months, make what I call a ris-oat-o, basically a rice dish using steel cut oats instead of rice. Its just chicken stock, onions, some milk and whatever other fixins you want to add (vegetables, meat or cheese-if you’re not too strictly primal).

    Turning it into a savory dish, for those that still want to eat oats every once in a while, takes a lot of edge off of the negative effects, especially when its part of a meal. If oats bother you, definitely don’t eat them!

    Phillionaire wrote on November 16th, 2011
  4. Wow, i never knew grains were so bad. I’m Asian and take rice on a daily basis and have been eating Quacker oats as a snack thinking it was healthy

    Dee wrote on November 16th, 2011
  5. Oats are a dietary staple around the world. I eat 1 bowl every morning before I head out to work at 7am and I’m satiated until well after 12 noon. This absurd notion that they spike your blood sugar and cause diabetes made me LOL. I find myself despising Mark Sissy and his sissy syncophants more and more all the time. It seems there is no level you will stop at.

    Chris Ripley wrote on January 22nd, 2012
    • Not every food works for every person. There are people for whom a raw vegan diet helps them thrive and people who eat oatmeal for breakfast and thrive. If oats work for you and don’t bother you, eat them. A lot of us who have turned to eliminating grains and dairy have digestive upset when we eat them, or are insulin resistant to some degree and so we can’t process the added blood sugar from the surge in carbohydrates.

      I’ve eliminated oats for close to a year and I’m planning to reintroduce them to see if they bother me. If they don’t, then I will eat them and enjoy them. If they do, then I’ll eliminate them again. That’s called using one’s brain to make an educated and suitable decision for themselves.

      If you can’t accept that there are other people for whom this dietary intervention works, and you so obviously don’t need it, then stop reading the blog. Being insulting does you no good here.

      Kristina wrote on July 8th, 2012
  6. WOW… I thought Steel Cut Oats were different in that they took much longer to raise blood sugar so as to not spike it so much. Good to know that this is not good since I am prediabetic.

    Vicki wrote on January 27th, 2012
  7. I’ve been doing primal for about a month but I’m soon to try tips from because I would like to start power lifting (female, 39 y.o.) and he insists that your post workout meals have little fat, starch and protein. I bought some McCann’s oatmeal for this purpose alone but now I’m not sure if I should replace the oats and if so…with what?? Potatoes?

    I’m confuzzled for sure because 2 years ago I lost 30lbs, ate mostly primal but I did eat 1/2 a cup of unsweetened oatmeal fairly consistently and experienced no problems.

    Suggestions for the post work-out if starch is required?

    Tanya wrote on March 27th, 2012
    • And by “he” I refer to Martin Berkhan. Sorry for that omission.

      Tanya wrote on March 27th, 2012
    • Listen to your instructor. There is a great deal about the Paleo diet that isn’t completely grounded in irrefutable science. Oats are bad or good depending on who you talk to. There are studies that suggest it improves heart health and decreases inflammation so I say keep doing what you’re doing if its working for you. Paleo is good, but don’t make it a religion :)

      Jayhuck wrote on March 27th, 2012
  8. Paelo has many lessons but an obsessive focus on the negatives-only of any food or lifestyle choice that is not 100pc Paleo is unbalanced. Imagine for argument’s sake an anti-paleo guy looking at the neagtives-only of Paleo foods and lifestyle choices. A decision based on an unbalanced analysis of the evidence is vulnerable to easy attack.

    jonathan wrote on March 27th, 2012
  9. Will this go thro’ to Davey, wrt his comment dd 4th June? Well, Davey, if it does, do be advised that it’s not correct that “…your cholesterol is bad but its not related to how much you eat..”. Both the literature and my personal experience indicate that about a third of all of us (with me in that third unfortunately), WILL show higher levels of chol based on what we eat. My personal experience is giving up egg yolk to get my chol down, re-starting once I did get it down, and finding it higher than ever after being on ONE masly egg daily for a year. As you might hv guessed, I’m an egg-lover, but don’t ever think that diet will not affect chol levels. It just has to be tried out and monitored by the individual.

    Gopal Rao wrote on June 4th, 2012
  10. Yeah I soak them for 24 hours and have them in a shake pre-workout with protein powder…

    Kevin wrote on June 10th, 2012
  11. I have been knocking my weight down with Paloe, but my LDL is way up, and the Doc wants it down. (Threatening Lipitor). Will oats help lower my LDL without threatening the other positive results of Paleo? Thanks John R.

    John wrote on July 5th, 2012
  12. I also grew up in Germany and we, as a family, NEVER ate oatmeal, just rye bread with wurst (and yes, we ate liver and I love it to this day. As an adult, thinking I was doing a good thing, I started to eat oatmeal. Wow, did I ever get sick, I started to get nauseated, started to have tremours, muscle weakness and started to sweat like crazy. I would have to lie down and wouldnt feel good for hrs afterward. Not knowing what was wrong (I never suspected oatmeal), I ran from doctor to doctor and no one could figure out why I was having these symptoms. All I knew was that if I ate something real quick, the symptoms would slowly subside. So, like an idiot, each time I had those symptoms (daily), I would eat like food was going out of syle. Years later and 25 pounds later I finally figured out that it was the oatmeal :( Never again will I ever eat oatmeal. Same happens when I eat bananas or walnuts, hmmmm…now how do I get rid of those extra 25 pounds? Whomever lost them…I found them…and you can have them back ;(

    Eva wrote on August 21st, 2012
  13. Eeek, reading all this has me so confused. I finished the whole30 a week ago and have kept up at about 90% (i eat chia seeds in my kombucha again, and do not stress about how the chicken at the potluck was cooked/is there sugar in that bacon, etc.). I am loving the paleo lifestyle but need to, 1.figure out how to do it cheaper, and 2.figure out how to continue the goal of eating with my family (partner and 2.5 year old) without preparing two meals- my partner is slowly adding more meat to her diet but has no intention of decreasing dairy and is showing only moderate interest in adjusting grains. I decided to re-introduce oats about five minutes ago… They are cheap and i can make oat cakes, quickly, on the george foreman, and everyone likes them. I soak the thick cut rolled oats, add an egg, chia, slivered almonds, flax, raisins, add molasses to my kids, and top with almond butter and banana or apple. I am really new to this, does this sound horrendous? I have done oats for years, love congee, and had hoped this could be my first compromise. My overall goals are general health and good modeling for my kid.

    Anj wrote on September 27th, 2012
  14. Hi. Well after analizing and thinking a lot about all this topic, i realized that ppl that feel bad on grains ( i was on that side some time ago) was because they have an candida overgrowth. I think one of the main reasons candida get overgrowth is due to much fiber in the diet. Well it can also because of almonds, wallnuts, peanut, all thouse seed that have fungus. It do not need to be candida, there are tons of fungus that can live inside your gut and turns any carb into sugar very easily. Sprouts can do that too. Well lots of things can cause fungus overgrowth in your gi. Wath i have been doing is taking a probiotic supplemented with vitamins and minerals, and, believe it or not, drinking black tea and olive oil. Both have very powerfull antifungal properties. Also remove fiber for the diet for a while to ensure the fungus do not have something to eat. Fiber is one of the most appealing things for thouse fungus, ofcourse sugar must be out of the plate (but, i think, almost everyone now do not take it). Cheese can also give you more fungus issues. Well milk, specially the UHT one is very very bad for the body, it build up mucus on the lumbs, at least that was what i feel and as soon i remove it my symptoms were gone, maybe i am allergic to that thing XD i do no know.

    Nicolás DIaz G wrote on October 15th, 2012
  15. The contention that whole grains, including wheat and oats, raise blood sugar is false. Whole grains are the type of carbohydrate that any reputable nutritionist or medical professional recommends. Dr. David Jacobs indicated that a seventeen year study of 27,000 women showed that eating whole grains, including oats, lowered the risk of heart disease and diabetes. If Mr. Mark had to “lie down after eating a bowl of oatmeal”, it definitely wasn’t the oatmeal that spiked his blood sugar. I eat oatmeal for breakfast and walk 1.5 miles to work every day! The only ingredient I add to the oatmeal is a few raisins and raw cranberries on occasion. I am 54 years old.

    keith decker wrote on November 1st, 2012
  16. I’m not ready to give up on oats just yet. I’m a Paleo 2.0 mutant that can handle potatoes, dairy, and full-fatted meats, liver, bone broths, etc. I’ve just discovered that I do not get the ‘head space’ feeling from sprouted oats.

    I’ve yet to try the overnight fermentation recipe (with buckwheat flour) posted on Paleo hacks (jack kronk’s post) to knock down the phytate, but I suspect that it will work with sprouted oats, and that this will eliminate the ‘heavy stomach’ feeling from this particular phytate rich food.

    James Nelson wrote on December 3rd, 2012
    • This is a follow up post. It turns out that the heavy stomach feeling that I had was coming from the A1 Casein in the cows milk that I cooked the oats in. I am happy to report that I have no issues (digestive or otherwise) with goat milk (A2 casein), and can now add sprouted oatmeal to my list of allowed foods within a Paleo/Primal/Ancestral way of eating.

      James Nelson wrote on November 16th, 2013
  17. A lot of people talk in this column about the effect of oats on blood sugar, insulin, or whatever. What no one cites are actual large scale, double blind studies that show a causal link between oats and anything at all. Moreover,the primal diet, lacking such large scale studies over time, is simply an idea, and some people are fanatical about it because of its intellectual simplicity, even though life expectancy has gone up a lot since the times when people ate that way. Correlations are cited, but correlations are not evidence of cause and effect and are notoriously unreliable compared to double blind studies. I’m a vegan because I hate hurting animals and subjecting them to wretched conditions. I eat lots of fruits and nuts, and I have a big bowl of oatmeal with both in the morning. From a health point of view it’s not clear it makes a big difference in the long run. Plus there’s good reason to think people’s physiology varies greatly precisely because evolution found that making people react differently to different foods gave the greatest chance for species survival. So maybe everyone is truly different in how they react. I say only trust long term,large scale, double blind studies and not people’s theories.

    Andy Ferguson wrote on December 22nd, 2012
  18. And one more thing. So what if paleo humans ate meat and veggies only? All they had to do was survive until child bearing and rearing age for this diet to be successful from an evolutionary point of view. So if consuming meat tends to kill you when you reach 50 or so, then it wouldn’t have figured into the success of the survival of paleo folks. Also, books like the China study, which is based on large scale studies, show that it is when animal protein exceeds 15% of the diet that big adverse health consequences occur. Just eating meat because its paleo food is absurd. The whole thing strikes me as ridiculous.

    Andy Ferguson wrote on December 22nd, 2012
  19. All of you complaining about oats giving an insulin-spike, well of course it does if you eat it with milk and marmelade both of which contain a large amount of sugar. Balance the carbs out with butter and protein and I think you’ll be fine

    Kerrigan wrote on January 15th, 2013
  20. A little off-topic here, but I just wanted to say how much I enjoy your writing style, Mark. This was a great – and very entertaining – post.

    Paula wrote on January 15th, 2013
  21. My mom, a type two diabetic with terribly high blood sugar (also on insulin), started eating oatmeal, and now her blood sugar is down to the 70-80 range before breakfast and without insulin… She eats the ultra sugared instant, two at a time…
    So I think oatmeal is good.
    Also, she lost 20 pounds (she was eating mostly oatmeal) after 2 weeks. But she’s like 390 pounds, so I guess it’s expected to drop like a stone.

    Darian wrote on February 1st, 2013
  22. i just put around 50g in a vanilla protien shake for breakfast, so i’m not stuffing myself full of carbs but i’m still able to benefit from the health aspects of eating oats, it’s more filling than just a protien shake and less boring than just plain oats and the two actually go pretty well together lol

    Bec wrote on February 12th, 2013
  23. As a famished vegan I used to eat a big bowl of steel-cut oatmeal before exercising. By the time I got to the gym at lunch I was STARVING and could barely finish the workout. Grain makes for a horrible breakfast. Now, I have some organic dried meat, raw milk cheese or biodynamic egg and feel much, much better.

    Tom Kaye wrote on February 17th, 2013
  24. no problem with insulin spikes eating 70 grams of oat bran with ground almonds,yogurt,cocnut oil and cocoa powder follwed by coffee and cream

    chris wrote on February 22nd, 2013
  25. I haven’t eaten oats in a really long time and live a mostly paleo lifestyle. One day my personal trainer says we’ve written up a new diet for you and decides to add oats… So I question why she’d do that and she replies ” they’re water soluble, not very high in calories and you need some starch to help build muscle and burn fat”.
    So I decide if I’m going to try them I’m going to get the best quality steel cut oats I can find. I thought about soaking them in yogurt but decided not to just because the take long enough to make as it is. Ultimately like the rest of the gang I didn’t really care for them I could go the rest of my life and never think about them, and my side affects lasted 3-4 days. I get horrible bumps on my tongue and intestinal pain. I’m just wondering if anyone else gets these bazaar tongue bumps when they eat gluten as well?

    Tee wrote on February 25th, 2013
    • I would check the yogurt first. Almost all the dairy in the US comes from Holstein (black and white) cows that produce the problematic mutated a1 casein. The bumps on the tongue may be an autoimmune response that has gone haywire and the a1 casein can cause intestinal distress that is easy to confuse with lactose intolerance.

      James N. wrote on June 19th, 2014
  26. I stopped eating breakfast for 2 years ago and I’ve never felt better.

    Never ever breakfast again for me.

    I drink one cup of quality coffee mixed with 80gram of grassfed butter and 2 tbsp MCT Oil, that gives me plenty of energy until 12.

    I usually don’t eat between 19:00 and 12:00, intermittent fasting for 18 hours.

    Stop eat and live longer and prosperous.

    Janus Knudsen wrote on February 25th, 2013

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