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 oatmeal every morning. I eat I cup of oats with 2T of grassfed butter and 2T 100% maple syrup. I also add raisins or crasins and walnuts or al almonds or pecans. I eat it every day. It keeps me regular (tmi) and I’m not hungry until usually dinner time. I’m not giving them up.

    Kimbojohn wrote on June 24th, 2014
  2. Hi,
    I love oats, but when I eat oats I afterwards experience hectic joint pains.

    So, ive stopped using oats for years. I have tried on occasions afterwards, but had the same experience of joint pain.

    I spoke to two older people that have very bad artheritus and they too confirmed that they eat oats daily and that their pain is intense.

    Please enlighten me on this mather.

    God bless

    dorothy wrote on August 8th, 2014
  3. I am from India. I never Recommend Oats>Once it is given to Cattles. when there was a huge production of Oats ,MNC’s started it marketing saying OATS are Healthy this is what many say. but not the Truth. it is a Myth and lies spread by the Multinational Companies who sell Oats. What one eats today is Refined Oats. But still taking Oats daily will put on weight.

    Ayurveda and Siddha Doctors in India do not recommend Oats. I do not Belive that oats is full of Minerals,Zinc and other vitamins and i always against people eating Oats. Oatmeal is much more bad for health.

    Jayasankar wrote on November 12th, 2014
  4. You really just need to soak them for 24 hours using pure water and your good. You don’t need yogurt or try to ferment them.

    Years ago from what I have heard is that soaking them was on the instructions on the box, but with the advent of cereals like corn flakes etc they took it off as not to lose customers who did not want to take the time.

    Michael wrote on November 15th, 2014
  5. Late to the party so I don’t know if anyone will get to this or not.

    What’s the verdict on gluten-free oatmeal? I don’t eat it all the time but I have a box at the office in case I’m in a rush that day and didn’t pack a meal from home. Seems it would be another step up from oatmeal…perhaps as Mark likes to say about white rice, a “neutral carb”?

    Jacob wrote on November 17th, 2014
  6. I’ve been eating buckwheat instead

    Christine wrote on December 31st, 2014
  7. My acupuncturist suggested a slow/long cooked rice porridge for breakfast each morning. Chinese medicine suggests a gentle warm start to the digestive system. She wanted us to cook dried apricots in it (I believe for the iron) and absolutely insisted that a good amount of full fat butter be added specifically for the purpose of reducing a blood sugar spike.

    My guess is that the addition of fat to oatmeal would slow the blood sugar spike.

    Debra M wrote on January 17th, 2015
  8. I eat oat about three times a week. I find they give me energy. Especially if I add them to a fruit smoothie (along with protein powder). I do come from Scottish ancestry though, so I’m figuring that could have something to do it.

    Sonya wrote on March 22nd, 2015

    so i read this ran to the health food store bought bob’s big red mill gf oats
    i also purchased the Trader Joe’s McCann’s Canister
    soaked both of them

    first tried the gf ones from (Bob’s Big Red Mill)
    feel the same foggy horribleness i always felt eating oats (which i always loved eating)
    the ones u all are sharing about here
    many years ago on the zone diet a small amount of oats with ham worked i think
    one of u made a comment about eating a balanced diet and overtime
    the sensitivity to the blood sugar in oats would normalize
    did i hear that right?

    so discouraged afraid to try the other version (McCann’s)
    even though supposedly “raw” is the thing according to this link about
    groats killing candida

    i was primal diet eater until i started with making sourdough bread
    dreaming i could eat bread
    obviously i cant


    this young man claims he had detox reactions to eating the McCann’s Groats from Trader Joes
    hearing it i ran right out and thought id try it
    however im thinking maybe he just feels like crap like i do now
    and always did when i though i could eat loads of oats and not have to make a meal

    should i just keep at primal or go back to zone?
    i had issues with both over time
    wishing i knew what is going to just simply leave me full and happy and content
    meal done now on with enjoying life
    that was always my goal
    i feel miserably far from it

    i’ve been eating the raw potato starch for a few weeks now
    at first i had gas and i felt it was a healing reaction and now i have really none that i can think of
    thank u community of protein builders who are interested in getting a Life from taking the time to find out what truely works verses incorrect info
    i want to be in the know

    Teresa wrote on April 12th, 2015
  10. Hi there im a whole foods advocate and I’m undecided on oats because my heritage is scottish. Way back in the begining this was one of the only foods available in Scotland along side fresh caught fish. The scots of that time had the best dental health and also had the best build strong upper body etc etc. The problem as you said above does lie in the preperation like you said above most are too lazy to do this. Although the spike In blood sugar I never seem to get but then I’m dairy free I have my oats with coconut milk and coconut oil along side a touch of maple and quite a lot of cinnamon. Cylon cinnamon is good for stopping the blood sugar spike and so is coconut oil is it not?? It’s not a food I’d eat very often but now and again as a treat it’s not too bad

    Dianne wrote on July 7th, 2015

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