Oats: The Good and Bad

oat cereal Oats, including oatmeal, can dish up some serious health benefits. When we think of oat based foods, we typically think of them as being a good source of health enhancing fiber, particularly soluble fiber. By definition, soluble fiber actually dissolves in water. In foods, soluble fiber adds a pleasing consistency. When we eat foods with soluble fiber, we can potentially decrease our blood sugar and cholesterol levels. There is scientific evidence that soluble fiber, once fermented in the gut, can reduce inflammation and even support our immune system. And fiber, in general, fills us up so it’s easier to lose weight! With so many health benefits, why would we hesitate to eat it?

Oats may have gluten

If you need to avoid gluten, not all oat cereal is gluten free. Oats do not contain gluten, but they may become contaminated with gluten if processed with other gluten containing foods. Choose brands of oat based cereals manufactured in a gluten free facility if there is a medical reason to avoid gluten. These products, such as the one in the below photo, can state they are gluten-free. They can state this because there were no other gluten containing products made at the processing facility that could contaminate the oats.

gluten free oatsOats and weed killer

Glyphosate is a weed killer that is sprayed on many of our conventional crops including oat crops. This compound has caused reproductive problems in animals and is thought to be a potential carcinogen in humans. The common weed killer Roundup contains glyphosate.

Published safety limits are hard to find. As is the case with a lot of controversial food topics, it’s hard to get at some of the facts. According to a Consumerlab.com. review, California has set a daily limit of 1100 mcg. In contrast, European countries set a higher adult limit of 34,000 mcg. The same review states a standard 3/4 cup serving of Original Cheerios contained only 32 mcg of glyphosate. If this is still not low enough for your healthy eating strategies, you can always opt for organic versions of your favorite oat based foods. You may not be able to totally avoid ingesting some of the glyphosate, but you can decrease your exposure by going the organic route.

Fungal contamination of oats

Ochratoxin is a fungal toxin found in foods of plant and animal origin. Molds produce the Ochratoxin when exposed to heat and moisture during crop production. Up to 70% of oat-based cereals in the United States have been reported to contain this toxin. And, it’s a compound strongly linked to cancer. According to research, choosing organic over conventional counterparts will not be helpful. Cooking does not destroy this toxin. The best practical risk reduction strategy is watching your portion sizes! This will obviously limit your exposure to the toxin if it’s in the cereal.

The good news: Oat cereal is a good source of fiber and protein

oatmeal labelSo should you skip the oat cereals? I think definitely not! Oatmeal and other oat cereals are a source of healthy complex carbohydrates and a fairly significant source of dietary fiber. A single 40 gram serving of oatmeal has 4 grams of fiber and 6 grams of protein. Choosing gluten free organic options and watching portions will go a long way in making sure the oat cereals you choose are the best possible choices for your health.

Oat cereals are low in iron and sugar

And, what may not be readily apparent is the fact that oatmeal is a cereal that is low in iron. While cereal for much of the population is an important source of necessary dietary iron, there are many people that do not benefit from that iron. In fact, the iron may harm their health. Most men and older women should be picking cereals that are lower in iron. And, if your oat cereal is unflavored or plain, the sugar content clocks in at virtually nothing. Given the sugar content of most cereals, that is actually unusual and clearly a nutritional advantage.

Oats are a good prebiotic food

Your gut contains many bacteria that help you stay well. This is frequently referred to as the gut microbiome. The make-up of your individual gut bacteria is unique and hinges, in part, on the types of foods you eat on a regular basis. When you have the right mix of gut bacteria, your immune system is stronger and your digestion is better. While bacteria reside in the gut, people can also consume bacteria known as probiotics. The gut bacteria may be altered to improve overall health when these probiotics are consumed in adequate amounts. Certain foods like yogurt, kefir, kombucha, and sauerkraut are rich sources of probiotics. Probiotics are also available as a supplement (purchasing tips).

Probiotics should not be confused with prebiotics. Prebiotics serve as food for probiotics, assuring their viability. Prebiotic foods are usually rich in fiber. While the fiber is in the digestive tract, the bacteria use it for food. Eventually, the fiber is excreted in digestion, but while in the digestive tract, it plays a crucial role in feeding the gut bacteria. Oatmeal is a classified as a prebiotic food.

Take away

As is the case with many foods, oats are at risk for pesticide and toxin contaminants. Choosing smaller amounts and organic versions of oat cereals can lessen risk from these contaminants. The good news is oats are low in sugar and iron (good for many people). They are a lower calorie source of protein and fiber. That fiber lowers your blood sugar and cholesterol levels and aids in weight loss. And, it’s critical for feeding your gut bacteria. Bottom line, oats are a pretty good fuel for both you and your gut bacteria.

While I like oats for the above reasons, another researcher suggests oats may be the next superfood as they are loaded with anti-oxidants!

If you want to try the very popular overnight oats, the basic recipe is here.

Why do you think oats are healthy? Please share so I can add to this blog. If you learned something from this blog, please share as well.

 

 

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