With the 19th Annual Golden Spurtel World Porridge Making Championship on the horizon on October 6th , we though it appropriate to pay homage to this traditional breakfast grub.
The primary health benefit associated with oatmeal is the reduced risk of heart disease due to lower cholesterol levels. The Food and Drug Administration in the US approved a health claim for oats and coronary heart disease in January of 1997, and (more than 10 years later) Health Canada jumped on board. An example of the wording of the health claim is as follows:
“1 muffin (X g) with oat bran provides X % of the daily amount of the fibres shown to help lower cholesterol”
Note: the “daily amount” refers to three grams beta-glucan oat fibre and there are several conditions that must be met (1).
The cereal industry is elated and the claim is appearing on numerous products that contain oat bran. Can oat bran really lower cholesterol levels in a physiologically relevant way and, if so, how much do you need to eat?
The evidence for the link between oat fibre and lower cholesterol levels is fairly strong; hence the approved health claims. Two meta-analyses combined the information from several individual studies to come up with a summary statement of the effects of oat fibres on cholesterol. They concluded that eating oat fibre can lower total cholesterol and the LDL-cholesterol (“bad” cholesterol – increased risk of cardiovascular disease) without affecting the levels of the HDL cholesterol (“good” cholesterol – reduced risk of cardiovascular disease). The effects seem to be limited to cholesterol levels, however, as improvements in triglycerides were not consistently found (2,3).
Unfortunately, not all studies find improvements and it is possible this is due to the amount and size of the beta-glucans (the type of soluble fibre found in oats) and the way the oat fibre has been processed, cooked or stored. Generally, when the beta-glucan has a lower molecular weight (smaller) it is not as effective because it isn’t as viscous (4).
How much oat fibre do you need to eat to see health improvements? Brown et al. note that the effect is small. For example, they estimate that three grams of soluble fibre from oats (you would have to eat three 28 g servings of oatmeal to get three grams) will decrease total and LDL cholesterol levels by 0.13 mmol/L (2). On the positive, even this small drop in cholesterol is considered a physiologically meaningful change in cholesterol (1). Practically, this means that oat fibre can be beneficial but it is still important to have you cholesterol levels tested and follow your health care provider’s recommendations. You may have to do more than eat (a lot of) oatmeal to control your cholesterol!
How is oatmeal working its magic? There are several possible explanations and it may be a combination of many different properties.
- Soluble fibres tend to trap cholesterol and prevent it from being absorbed in the intestinal track. Absorbed cholesterol is processed by the liver and eventually ends up as LDL cholesterol. A reduction in absorption then should decrease blood LDL levels (4).
- The oat fibre can also trap bile. Bile is produced by the liver from cholesterol for fat digestion. The liver removes cholesterol from the blood stream for use in bile production. If the bile is trapped and passes through your system rather than being absorbed, your body needs to draw cholesterol from the blood stream to make more; thereby, lowering your blood cholesterol levels (5).
The fibre in the oats may also improve the types of bacteria in your gut, but more research is needed here. As a side note, soluble fibres in general may also slow glucose absorption and thus improve blood sugar and insulin levels (6). Plain, unflavoured oats are also low in sugar and have many other nutrients in addition to the fibre content.
No Baloney’s advice? Although the ready-to-eat cereals are taking advantage of the health claim by splashing all over the front of their products, we still recommend preparing your own oatmeal (steel cut oats are best). You’ll get better value and nutrition that way! If you don’t have the time for steel cut, try batch cooking – they reheat great – or opt for quick-cooking oats. Instant oatmeal is significantly less fibre, but can still be a good choice just buy the unflavoured to limit added sugar.
Think oats are plain and boring? Not so – they are the little black dress of breakfast! You can dress them up for more flavour AND increase the nutritional value with a few basic accessories.
Here are a few of our favourites:
- Skim milk powder: It makes the oatmeal creamy and delicious and increases the protein content.
- Whey protein: It makes the oatmeal taste a bit grainy but provides the extra protein for those who may need it.
- Quinoa: Add a small amount to the water and boil for 10 minutes or so and then add the oats if using the quick cooking kind. It adds some more protein and a bit of texture.
- Fresh fruit: A healthy way to jazz it up and sweeten the taste. Blueberries and oatmeal are a natural combo.
- Honey, maple syrup or brown sugar: This is all glam and not much substance, but delicious!
- Nuts: Go nuts and add a few of your favourite nuts for more protein. We like walnuts for the bonus omega-3 fatty acids.
- Bran: You can sprinkle a bit of bran fibre on top for some crunch and extra fibre.
- Omega-3s: Add some ground flax seed or chia seed for the omega-3 fatty acids.
Don’t forget oats also go well in homemade granola, breads, pancakes, cookies and (our absolute favourite) as a topping on any type of fruit crisp. We challenge you to have oats for breakfast, at least on October 10th for World Porridge Day!
- Health Canada. Oat products and blood cholesterol lowering; 2010. Accessed September 24th, 2012 from http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/fn-an/label-etiquet/claims-reclam/assess-evalu/oat-avoine-eng.php
- Brown L, et al. Cholesterol-lowering effects of dietary fiber: a meta-analysis. Am J Clin Nutr 1999; 69: 30-42.
- Kelly SA, et al. Wholegrain cereals for coronary heart disease. Cochrane Database Syst Rev 2007; 18(2):CD005051.
- Wolever T, et al. Physicochemical properties of oat beta-glucan influence its ability to reduce serum LDL cholesterol in humans: a randomized clinical trial. Am J Clin Nutr 2010; 92: 723-32.
- Andersson KE. Effects of oats on plasma cholesterol and lipoproteins in C57Bl/6 mice are substrain specific. Br J Nutr 2010; 103: 513-521.
- Ellegard L, et al. Oat bran rapidly increases bile acid excretion and bile acid synthesis: an ileostomy study. Eur J Clin Nutr 2007; 61:938-45.
- Wursch P, et al. The role of viscous soluble fiber in the metabolic control of diabetes. A review with special emphasis on cereals rich in beta-glucan. Diabetes Care 2007; 20:1774-80.