Mash. Mush. Porridge. Oatmeal. While it goes by different names, one thing stays the same: oats are a universally-loved breakfast food. And we’re only beginning to appreciate their physical and environmental benefits. Whether you take them hot or cold, sweet or savory, oats are an essential part of a balanced, sustainability-minded diet.
The different types of oats
Unlike some grains, like corn and rice, you can’t eat unprocessed oats straight from the field. The oats that we harvest include a hard husk that requires removal before they’re ready for human consumption. When we remove these husks, also known as oat hulls, during processing, we’re left with the oat groat. Groats are whole grains, which means they include the entire bran, endosperm, and germ. While you can buy and cook whole oat groats, you’re more likely to find steel-cut, rolled, or quick cook oats at the grocery store.
When oats are steel-cut, the entire oat groat gets chopped into pinhead-sized pieces. In rolled oats, the whole oat groat is steamed, rolled into flat flakes, and then lightly toasted. To make the most highly processed oats—quick-cook oats—rolled oats get chopped into smaller pieces. This allows them to cook more quickly. They have the same flavor and nutrients as other types of oats, but a finer texture.
Regardless of which type of oats you prefer, you’ll get the same benefits. You’ll get lower cholesterol, better heart and gut health, and a balanced breakfast.
#1: Lower cholesterol, regulate blood sugar, and stabilize energy
Struggling with high cholesterol, managing type 2 diabetes, or looking for a solution to the “mid-morning slump”? Eating more oats may be the solution you need. As both a whole grain and a complex carbohydrate, oats provide slow-burning energy. Because they’re low on the glycemic index, they won’t spike your blood glucose. Plus, oats naturally have higher fat and protein content than other grains, like wheat and rice. This means they keep you full for longer.
You’ve likely also heard that oatmeal is part of a heart-healthy diet. That’s because of a wealth of research showing that oats can lower “bad” cholesterol levels (LDL cholesterol). In fact, according to studies in adults, a daily “dose” of oats can lower LDL cholesterol by as much as 10%. This is important because when there’s too much LDL cholesterol in your bloodstream, it can accumulate in artery walls. This accumulation restricts blood flow and can eventually lead to heart attacks.
#2: Oats are naturally gluten-free and low FODMAP
These days, it seems like everybody is hopping on the gluten-free bandwagon. But few understand what gluten actually is, and how it functions in our diets. Essentially, gluten is a general name for the proteins found in wheat, rye, and barley. Gluten is what helps foods maintain their shape—” glues” them together. It’s what makes dough elastic and bread soft and chewy.
Most people can tolerate gluten just fine. But for people with Celiac disease or gluten sensitivity, eating gluten triggers an immune reaction. This response damages the small intestine and contributes to body-wide inflammation.
FODMAPs (“fermentable oligo-, di-, mono-saccharides and polyols”) can cause similar symptoms. But instead of being an immune response, someone with FODMAP intolerance can be sensitive to a variety of otherwise healthy foods. FODMAP-rich foods include fruits, vegetables, and some whole grains.
Luckily, oats are naturally gluten-free. And when eaten according to dietary guidelines, are also a low-FODMAP breakfast option. Still, anyone with a severe gluten allergy or Celiac’s disease should be aware that oats can come into contact with gluten during processing. If you have a severe gluten reaction, always look for certified gluten-free products.
#3: Keep your “second brain” happy
We’ve all heard the phrase “gut feeling.” But did you know that your gut health can affect your mood and sense of well-being? Recent research has discovered an entire ecosystem of bacteria and neural networks in the human gastroenteric system. And evidence shows that the health of that ecosystem strongly influences your mood. Emerging research links gut health to everything from digestive conditions, to immune function, obesity, and depression.
For decades, oats have been a known gut health superfood. They’re rich in healthy, soluble fiber that feeds your beneficial gut bacteria. According to Dr. Nicole Avena, “Oats are nutritional powerhouses. They contain healthy unsaturated fats, protein, dietary fibers, disease-fighting phytochemicals, vitamins, and minerals. But, the one nutrient that really makes oats stand out is fiber.”
The main dietary fiber in oats is called beta glucan, AKA “the heart-healthy fiber.” Because beta glucan is a soluble fiber—it partially dissolves during digestion—it’s considered prebiotic. In simple terms, it’s a food source for your healthy gut bacteria. And studies show that those with healthy and diverse gut microbes are less likely to suffer from anxiety and depression.
By keeping your gut well-fed with sustainable rolled oats, you’ll be powering your “second brain.” This can lead to a more stable mood, better immune function, and reduced risk of heart disease and colon cancer.
#4: Enjoy an easy, balanced breakfast
Not only are oats a natural, whole grain food. They’re also higher in fat and protein than most grains, which means they break down slower and keep you full for longer. It also means that oats are one of the most nutrient-dense grains you can eat.
Plus, whole oats are the only known food source for avenanthramides, a group of antioxidants that appear to support heart health. We’re still learning the depth of their benefits. But avenanthramides seem to have anti-inflammatory and anti-itch effects. It’s these effects that make oats a useful addition to skincare products as well.
Finally, oats are an excellent source of essential vitamins and minerals. According to Healthline, these vitamins and minerals include:
- Manganese: a trace mineral that’s important for development, growth, and metabolism.
- Phosphorus: a mineral that supports bone health and tissue maintenance.
- Copper: an antioxidant mineral that’s considered important for heart health.
- Vitamin B1: this vitamin, also known as thiamine, is essential to the nervous system, brain, heart, muscles, stomach, and intestines.
- Iron: a component of hemoglobin, this protein transports oxygen in the blood and is essential in the human diet.
- Selenium: research associates low selenium levels with higher risk of premature death, impaired immune function, and impaired mental function.
- Magnesium: up to 75% of the population doesn’t get enough of this crucial mineral. It’s important for bone and cardiovascular health.
- Zinc: this mineral boosts your immune system, can reduce inflammation, and helps with wound healing.
#5: Lower the carbon footprint of your breakfast table with sustainable rolled oats
Oats aren’t only a superfood when it comes to our health. They’re also a sustainability powerhouse. As Tamara Haspel writes for the Washington Post:
“Seems to me that, to be a superfood, a food’s got to deliver more than nutrients. It has to be cheap, versatile, good-tasting, not too onerous to prepare and not so perishable that you end up tossing it. It also has to perform on the environmental front. It has to be able to play in the kind of responsible, productive agricultural system we’re going to need if we expect to feed almost 10 billion people by 2050. That’s a long list and a tall order. And it is met by one of the most prosaic of foods: oats.”
One of the issues with the recent surge in exotic superfoods is the economic and environmental impact of shipping them around the world. Transporting food contributes significantly to greenhouse gas production. In fact, it accounts for as much as 11% of all pollution coming from the food system.
Compare that to the environmental benefits of growing, buying, and eating locally sourced, sustainably grown oats. Oats are a low-input crop, which means they require fewer resources to produce than other grains. When grown using a sustainable agriculture model, they encourage crop diversity and can help combat soil erosion.
What happens when you eat more rolled oats?
After reading about the benefits of oats, lifestyle correspondent for Spoon University, Stephanie Zajac, decided to give them a try. Every morning for two weeks, she started her day with a bowl of oatmeal. The results? At the end of the experiment, she felt more energized, felt lighter and more engaged mentally, and noted a boost to her metabolism.
But avoid the quick cook and sugar-bomb oats
Of course, all of these health benefits come from eating the oats themselves. Unfortunately, very few people find a bowl of just plain oats very appetizing. And by adding sweeteners and other additives, or choosing sugar-laden instant oatmeal packets, it’s easy to derail your attempts at eating clean.
That’s why we recommend using natural sweeteners in small amounts, such as raw honey, pure maple syrup, or even agave nectar. You can also try adding unsweetened applesauce, mashed bananas, or pureed strawberries for a natural sugar bump.
Considering the physical, mental, and environmental benefits, we should all eat more sustainable rolled oats. Not only is oatmeal a balanced breakfast full of macronutrients, vitamins, and minerals. But it’s also a heart-healthy and earth-friendly alternative to sugar-laden or high-fat breakfast options. Learn more about how Northerly’s rolled oats are feeding local communities.