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. Have you ever considered about including a little bit more than just your articles?
    I mean, what you say is fundamental and everything.
    However just imagine if you added some great images or video clips
    to give your posts more, “pop”! Your content is excellent but with images and videos, this website could undeniably be one of the greatest in its niche.

    Superb blog!

    Claudia wrote on May 23rd, 2013
  2. Oats /Oatmeal and cereals are sprayed more with pesticides than many other crops to keep the meal moths away while in storage. I love Oatmeal and finally realized why my gut felt bloated and ached. Have switched to organic oatmeal and it is back to being a healthy food again. Still concerned about clean water issues but the food we eat has tons more fluoride in it than the water. Fluoride is a Gas on the elemental chemistry chart and it love to attach to many other elements, when it does it makes a more powerful chemical . Do some research and live happier. There is no way to be fluoride free because it is so abudant every where. Boron along with calcium/magnesuim is the best answer to detox and repair your body. Good luck to you
    (At the same time, use of fluoride pesticides on cereal crops increased. Of particular benefit were the effects of fluorides on moths, same being known as the worst enemy of cereals in storage. Many patents were issued at the time attesting to fluoride’s benefits as moth ‘repellant’.)

    Jane wrote on June 5th, 2013
  3. Hi Mark, thank you for this post, I did the same thing this morning. I made the kids oatmeal with steel cut oats and ate about half a cup with some raisins and almond milk. I felt off after 30 minutes – spacey – just like you described but no gut issues either. They were organic and the headache wasn’t as bad as the one I got from eating a burger with buns at a Fathers day outing with family a couple of weeks ago. Self experimenting is very interesting. I’m glad to know you had the same experience as I did, but I don’t know what caused the headache – do you?

    Hannah wrote on June 25th, 2013
  4. You added a stick of butter, berries, cinnamon, honey, and then got a spacey feeling you blamed on the oatmeal?

    Blaze wrote on July 2nd, 2013
  5. I’m new to paleo. Haven’t really given up my Bobs red mill steel cut yet. I mix 1/4 oats with handful of crushed walnuts and cinnamon. Keeps me full but I wanted to really ‘do paleo’ and cut it out. To be honest, I just pretend I’m visiting another tribe for breakfast. :) Mostly I steer towards egg dishes or paleo pancakes.
    As far as oats I was wondering what the difference was between fermenting and adding lactic acid was, somehow in my brain, I think my body temp and the transit throughout would create the environment needed. If I eat after working out can’t I lend that acid somehow? And let my body do the chem lab stuff?

    Jennifer wrote on July 9th, 2013
  6. I’m going with sweet potatoes too, they just win on so many metrics for me

    Tried oats, including steel cut ones, def not for me

    eater wrote on July 18th, 2013
  7. I’m going to be another voice in the choir here, but after the switch to a paleo style diet, oats really hurt my stomach now- severe bloating & upset stomach feeling, followed by gas, etc. Whether they’re ‘good’ for me or not, i just know that they really don’t feel good anymore.

    Max wrote on September 16th, 2013
  8. the thing i don’t get is how does it spike your sugar levels? bit confused anyone care to explain

    clara wrote on September 22nd, 2013
  9. To address the “how do you like ’em” question:
    I soak oat groats (have only found them at Whole Foods) overnight. Just in water, but I think apple cider vinegar is beneficial. I just always forget.
    In the morning, I drain and then cook with fresh water and add chopped apples. I add a small amount of date paste (homemade) and some almond milk (also homemade). Delicious and does not spike my blood sugar, from what I can tell (I’ve never tested it). I’m admittedly a grain fanatic, so this helps satisfy that without resorting to greedily consuming a large loaf of bread while hiding in the recesses of a dark closet.

    Roady wrote on October 6th, 2013
  10. I find this blog interesting and agree with the general ideas of Paleo–eating organic, non gmo foods, and foods that are nutrient dense. I have a lot of questions regarding the scientific veracity of the claims made regarding grains. I haven’t come across any solid research to back up the claims made in the blog. I have done research regarding what nutritionists and even biochemists suggest, and haven’t found much support for Paleo. I’m not against adopting a full Paleo diet, however I’d like to see more solid research by experts in the field before I adopt the lifestyle. I think it is a little dangerous to advocate changing one’s diet before a lot of solid research has been conducted, and by this I mean a Paleo vs. non Paleo diet, and a longitudinal study, not just short term.

    Shannon wrote on October 12th, 2013
  11. I have just read with bemusment all these comments regarding the percieved benifits/non benifits of oats.
    I do not know how long you guys have been living and expereminting on your diets, however, I am a 32 year old male, who has never had a sickness other than the cold or flu. Absolutly no blood sugar problems/heart problems/blood pressure problems. in fact no medical condition at all with me or my 6 younger siblings. somthing so commen in this day and age, yet its a high statistic that no one in my family have any issue.
    We were brought up by a natropath. This meant no vaccinations, or drugs of any kind. Also no flouridated water. Our diet consisted of everything 100% organic and natural. Non of this diet supplements people are so fond of these days, and no vitamin supplements. Everything came from a natural unfrefined diet.
    Given the difficulty of finding organic produce over 30 years ago, most meat products were out. With great difficulty we obtained unpasturised goats milk yoghurt and cheese as well as eggs. Our food was mainly wholegrains, (Including oats, rice, buckwheat, and millet) vegies, salt(natural sea salt which is still grey, the refined stuff is a poison) and oil (also natural unrifened cold pressed).
    I still live this diet, and am always complemented on my immunity to most things that go around, as well as my youthfulness, most people think I am 24.
    when I meet people who have been brought up on a similar diet, its always noticable their health and youthfulness.
    Given that my father is a natropath, I have had the priveledge of seeing him treat people, and let me tell you, its no short of astounding what a good natropath can do. It is big business these days, so you have so many crappy ones, but when you can meet a guy that can have you piss all your gallstones out in 24 hours, or can get the likes of those competitors on the biggest loser to lose their weight faster, without excersise, and with no trouble, well then you know what your talking about.
    Hence I get back to the bemused part. A lot of you are making statments contrary to most established views on healthy eating, and wholegrains in general, and contrary to my own experience. To be honest, those getting the spikes eating oats, or whole grains, have a good long look at the rest of your diet. You are either doing somthing wrong, or are buying the wrong product.

    james wrote on October 19th, 2013
  12. Once a week, an post is devoted to recent news and research. Also, often, links are sprinkled through out the post that takes you to the source. There are multiple studies where researchers have studied tribes of people out other cultures that follow a paleo type diet and other studies that document when some groups have adapted a more SAD-like diet. Diets and behaviors are undergone daily with out scientific research to back it up. However I find this environment, while there is a basic starting template that is believed to be generally good for everyone, to encourage experimenting and looking for what works best personally.

    Ashley wrote on October 19th, 2013
  13. Oatmeal also played a big part in my decision to go primal. Feeling great after breakfast has always plagued me. I didn’t want cereal. Fruit wasn’t enough but didn’t feel right. Toast, bagels, cereals always triggered a huge acid reflux response. Finally I went to steel cut oatlmeal thinking this was the healthiest option according to ads, campaigns, the internet, etc. (the snipped in here about increase in bile production is an interesting correlation-I mean I never questioned before, but why the heck did that happen?) Anyway, when steel cut oatmeal made with fruit, butter and/or cinammon (no sugar, no dairy) gave me the same response as all of the bread products, I officially gave up on convenational “wisdom”. Now I eat any protein I have on hand (uncured, nitrate free pasture raised bacon/ham/sausage/leftover chicken, pulled pork or roast) which I re/heat with a handful of any greens I have on hand and I feel amazing after. Totally satiated and content with no digestion backlash of any kind.

    PRISCILL wrote on November 21st, 2013
  14. ready brek (instant oats) have less of an acidic effect after digestion than weetabix for instance, or any wheat but maybe that’s just my personal gut reaction. rolled oats especially the thick ones are very hard to digest. i’m sure your mainly paleo followers here but for those who just reduce grains significantly instant oats maybe more beneficial than wheat and rolled oats. replacing some wheat with oats works for me rather than going oats only.

    michael solomon wrote on January 21st, 2014
  15. You don’t suppose Wilfred Brimley is doing Diabetes commercials on account of all that “healthy oatmeal” he ate?

    zebonaut wrote on January 25th, 2014
  16. It seems like nearly every post is anti-oatmeal, but I love it for breakfast. I make rolled oats for both my son and myself about twice a week and put some fruit, brown sugar, and a dash of whole milk in it.

    I don’t notice any blood sugar spike, but I don’t think I’m sensitive to them anyway. I love it because it fills me up and keeps me rolling for several hours. Some people call it brick in the stomach, but I feel fueled up and ready to go with no crash later on.

    John Noel wrote on January 29th, 2014
    • Also, oatmeal cookies the best and you can mix in tons of good things (nuts, berries, etc.)! They’re way better than store-bought power bars or snack bars.

      John Noel wrote on January 29th, 2014
  17. For those confused about the difference between Glycemic Index (GI) and Glycemic Load (GL). Plain oatmeal has a low glycemic load!

    Oatmeal 58 GI (1/2 cup) 6.4 GL
    Cola, Carbonated 63 GI (12oz can) 25.2 GL

    The GI tells you how fast foods spike your blood sugar. But the GI won’t tell you how much carbohydrate per serving you’re getting. That’s where the Glycemic Load is a great help. It measures the amount of carbohydrate in each service of food. Foods with a glycemic load under 10 are good choices—these foods should be your first choice for carbs. Foods that fall between 10 and 20 on the glycemic load scale have a moderate affect on your blood sugar. Foods with a glycemic load above 20 will cause blood sugar and insulin spikes. Try to eat those foods sparingly.

    LovesOats wrote on February 2nd, 2014
  18. Why do you think Wilfred Brimley is doing Diabetes ads? Too much oatmeal? Spiking glucose in the blood, causing diabetes, creating insulin spikes, fat deposition; feeding cancer, causing arterial inflammation.

    “Heart healthy” MY ASS. Thats just Quaker PR

    zebonaut wrote on February 21st, 2014
  19. Could someone suggest a good paleo breakfast without eggs? I’ve been loosely following paleo diet for years but have just recently given up dairy to reduce inflammation. Having a hard time finding breakfast foods after always eating Greek yogurt or Kefir for breakfast. Even went back to gluten free oatmeal for a bit which is why I’m on this thread, but don’t want to eat it often. I can’t eat chicken either, have been eating Applegate turkey bacon. Thanks for any suggestions

    AnnieJ wrote on April 1st, 2014
  20. I think the point is everyone is different. Oats do NOT agree with me. I used to eat them thinking they were healthy, but seriously diffuse abdominal pain, and bloating follows (my stomach goes from normal to looking like I’m about to give birth). when i used to eat oats I’d be coming back for food a few hours later. Just a point of interest the harvard Glycemic Index seems to give different ratings than the Australian index. You guys must have different food (well I guessed that, we don’t thankfully have half the rubbish you guys do on the shelves, but we are slowly having more of your kind of foods like spray on cheese crap and oreos). We must not confuse glycemic load with glycemic index. Anyway, the thing is this. If you can eat them, great, if you can’t don’t. That’s not hard. I know one thing for sure, when I did used to eat them, I’d shaking like a leaf two hours later. I avoid them now. No need to prove anything to anyone, just do what is right for you. If you can get hold of a blood testing kit, do your own tests. Mabye mixing the oats with fat will reduce the GI. Also, point to note, the GI is a little bit of crap in that the testing is done by eating ONE food only, and nothing else with two hours either side. We don’t eat like that. So don’t put too much on what is essentially, like the heart foundation, a manufactured tool to make money and be a marketing bullshit thing. You can reduce the GI of any carb food by adding fat, that’s why a nut chocolate bar is lower than something healthy.

    Michelle wrote on May 3rd, 2014
  21. Well, I don’t know if Mark or most of you guys have PhDs in medical sciences, but here’s a link from the University of Chicago Celiac Disease Center showing why oats are safe in a gluten free diet.

    I think this is a pretty respectable source, don’t you think?

    Take care.

    Juan wrote on May 13th, 2014
  22. As an athlete and budget conscious guy, I have to say its difficult to give up oats.
    After a fast run at 8AM, I come home and simply cannot eat anything else.

    If I eat regular cereal or just protein/fat, I will be hungry still.
    I need carbs but dont feel like eating rice, I prefer to only eat rice for dinner.
    Same with potatoes.

    Oats really fill me up until lunch. Its just useful.

    The problem is there is no real easy alternative unless you can propose me one apart from rice for carbs.

    And regular cereals are horrendous…Will be hungry 1 hour later max.

    Nick wrote on June 5th, 2014
  23. It took me a while to figure it out, but apparently stirring oatmeal while cooking appears to release Avenin into the liquid medium (water, goat milk, dairy free liquid of choice, etc.). The way around this problem is to not stir the oatmeal while it is cooking. This results in a light and fluffy oatmeal that is easy to digest and doesn’t cause any spacy brain fog (at least for myself anyway). What does oatmeal have that is difficult to get in other foods? The answer is resistant starch and it appears to be an essential carbohydrate for the gut bugs in the large intestine. And that appears to be the main advantage of light and flaky oatmeal over gooey gloppy sticky oatmeal. The digestion of light and flaky oatmeal is passed down to large intestine instead of the small intestine, which can be a blessing for those of us who have guts that have been ravaged by gluten and a1 casein.

    James N. wrote on June 19th, 2014
  24. I just had a similar reaction to oats this last week. I don’t eat them often and probably won’t eat them anymore. They left my head feeling “spacy”, I was having a hard time focusing and I just felt weird.

    Wendy wrote on June 22nd, 2014
  25. 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
  26. 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

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