Fiber-rich oats are a powerhouse of nutrition
By: Maureen Bligh, MA, RDN
Oatmeal is a popular breakfast item, but many still wonder if it is healthy to eat. Fortunately, oats are a whole-grain, high-fiber option that can contribute to a feeling of fullness that lasts for many hours. In addition, they contain protein, vitamins and minerals and can be prepared in a variety of ways.
Oats were first cultivated in 1000 B.C. in central Europe. Ancient Greeks and Romans scoffed at oats as “barbarian” and only fed them to their animals. Later, the Western Roman Empire fell to oat-eating Germanic tribes.
Oats were first brought to America in the early 1600s by European explorers who planted them off the coast of Massachusetts. Scottish and Dutch immigrants used them in traditional porridges, puddings and baked goods. Currently, Vermont has the highest per capita oatmeal consumption in the United States, where it is often consumed with another local favorite: maple syrup.
Fiber describes the portion of plant materials in the diet that humans cannot digest. It is an important component in maintaining gastrointestinal (GI) health by regulating transit time through the GI tract and adding bulk, increasing a feeling of fullness and preventing constipation. Oats contain two types of fiber: soluble and insoluble.
Soluble fiber absorbs water and becomes a viscous gel as it moves through the GI tract and is fermented by bacteria. Insoluble fiber does not absorb water, acts as a bulking agent, and is not fermented by bacteria. Oats have the largest proportion of soluble fiber—in the form of beta-glucan—of any grain. The water-soluble properties of beta-glucan help control blood sugar by slowing down digestion, which can help people with diabetes achieve better glycemic control.
The soluble fiber in oats has been shown to decrease low-density lipoprotein, or “bad” cholesterol, by 10%–15%, particularly when consumed as part of a low-fat diet. Studies show fiber can also decrease risk of high blood pressure and reduce risk of mortality from cardiovascular disease.
A high-fiber diet has also been shown to reduce the risk of colon cancer. The American Heart Association recommends that adults eat 25–30 grams of fiber per day. Most Americans only eat about half that amount.
Just a ½ cup of uncooked, old-fashioned oats a day, prepared in any way, is enough to reap the many health benefits of the fiber it contains. This amount has about 150 calories, 4 grams of fiber (about half soluble and half insoluble) and 6 grams of protein. In addition to fiber, oats are rich in thiamin, magnesium, phosphorus, zinc, manganese, selenium and iron.
As a general rule, the less oats are processed, the more fiber they contain and the more health benefits can be gained from eating them.
Oatmeal is a porridge made from rolled or ground oats. Preparing oatmeal with milk instead of water increases the content of protein, calcium and other essential nutrients. Stirring in some yogurt with live, active cultures will add the health benefits of probiotics.
Adding fresh fruit such as blueberries, strawberries, bananas or apples increases the content of fiber, vitamins, minerals and antioxidant-rich phytochemicals. If no fresh fruit is available, add dried fruit such as raisins or cranberries.
Sprinkling walnuts, pecans, olive oil and sunflower seeds on top adds heart-healthy fats and protein. The added fats will help with feeling full even longer. For added sweetness without the calories, consider adding stevia or another low-calorie sugar substitute.
Maureen Bligh, MA, RDN
Maureen Bligh, MA, RDN
Maureen is the program director of marketing and communications and a practicing registered dietitian nutritionist with over 35 years of experience.
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