Is Oatmeal Good For You?
There are many foods that vary in suitability, from “really bad” wheat to “not so terrible” rice. What about the rest of them? Since I get a lot of emails asking me if oats and oatmeal are good for you, I thought I would look into that question for this post.
While I was (and still am) satisfied with dumping grain on the Don’t Eat pile, I think that more differentiated positions on grain will serve us better. Not everyone can avoid all grains at all times, and not everyone wants to avoid all grains at all times. In such situations it makes sense to have a game plan with which food can be “classified”.
Today we’re going to examine the different forms of oats and oatmeal, as well as possible diet-related pros and cons.
First, what is an oat?
Common oats are grains of cereal, the seeds of a type of grass called Avena sativa. Its ancient ancestor, Avena sterilis, came from the Fertile Crescent in the Middle East, but domesticated oats do best in cool, humid climates such as regions of Europe and the United States. They first appeared in Swiss Bronze Age caves and are still a staple food in Scotland.
Forms of oats
There are seven types of oats that are typically available for purchase:
- Whole oatmeal. The “whole grain” form of an oat is known as grits and is rarely sold as it is, except perhaps as horse feed or in bird feed mixes. Instead, they are sold as either steel cut, rolled, or instant oats.
- Scottish oats. These are ground stones that are believed to make a creamier oatmeal flour than steel.
- Steel cut or Irish oats. Steel cut oats, as the name suggests, are cut into a few pieces per grain with a steel blade. These contain the most nutrients (and anti-nutrients like phytic acid) and taste nuttier and chewier than old-fashioned oats, quick oats, or instant oats.
- Old fashioned oats or oatmeal. Oatmeal is steamed and then rolled into flat flakes.
- Oatmeal. Fast oats are rolled thinner than old-fashioned oats to cook faster.
- Instant oats. Instant oats are rolled even thinner than quick oats, so they can only be cooked with hot water.
- Oatmeal. Oatmeal starts with the whole oat groats and is ground into a fine powder.
Why Some People Avoid Oats
The main problems with oats are the phytic acids, which tend to bind minerals and prevent their absorption. (Ingestion is not absorption, remember.) Another problem is avenin, a protein from the prolamin family (along with gluten from wheat, rye, barley, and zein from corn). In terms of phytic acid (or phytate), oats contain less than corn and brown rice, but about the same amount as wheat.
Recipe to try: Noatmeal with blueberries and collagen
How to Reduce Antinutrients in Oats
Some say that soaking is enough to remove some of the antinutrients in oats. Others say you need lactic acid fermentation to neutralize the antinutrients.
Soaking involves soaking the oats overnight in water with a tablespoon or so of acid, either from lemon juice or from apple cider vinegar.
Lactic acid fermentation
As I understand it, you can further reduce antinutrients through lactic acid fermentation. I’m not sure how phytate can be deactivated, but one study shows that consuming oats that had undergone milk fermentation resulted in increased iron absorption.
Other sources claim that simple soaking is not enough because oats do not contain phytase, which breaks down phytate. Instead, you’d have to incorporate a phytase-containing flour to get the job done. A few tablespoons of buckwheat seem like a good choice for this. Combining lactic acid bacteria (whey, kefir, or yogurt), accompanying flour (buckwheat), water, and a warm room should take care of most of the phytate … but that’s a lot of work!
Avenin in oats
Avenin appears to have some of the same problems as gluten in certain sensitive individuals, although it doesn’t look like the problem is widespread or that serious. Children with celiac disease were more likely to produce oat avenin antibodies than children without celiac disease, but neither group was gluten-free. If you eat gluten-free celiac patients, they don’t seem to have higher levels of avenin antibodies.
It looks like other potentially harmful proteins become far less dangerous after gluten is removed. One study found that some celiac sufferers “failed” an oat challenge. Celiac patients ate certified gluten-free oats, and several showed signs of intestinal permeability, with one patient suffering from complete villus atrophy or villi collapse. Some out of nineteen patients don’t sound bad, but it does show the possibility of cross-reactivity.
Do oats contain gluten?
Oats are often cross-contaminated with gluten because they often grow close together in the fields and seeds don’t always stay where you put them. Certified gluten-free oats are not processed in the same facility as gluten grains and are grown far away from wheat fields.
So if you have celiac disease and want to experiment with oats, make sure they are certified gluten-free.
Why are oats praised so much by health organizations like the American Heart Association??
Oats contain a type of soluble fiber called beta-glucan that increases the excretion of bile acid. When bile acid is eliminated, any serum cholesterol that is bound in the bile is also eliminated. (That’s the idea behind the bean protocol we covered earlier.) The effect is a possible lowering of serum cholesterol.
In rats with a genetic defect in the LDL receptor gene – their ability to remove LDL from the blood is severely impaired – there is evidence that oat bran protects against atherosclerosis. Of course, the same mice with LDL receptor deficiency receive similar protection from a diet rich in yellow and green vegetables. So it’s not like oat bran is a magical substance.
Like other prebiotic fibers, oat bran increases butyrate production (at least in pigs), a beneficial short-chain fatty acid made by the fermentation of fibers by the intestinal flora with a variety of beautiful effects. Overall, I think these studies show that soluble fiber that is in food form is a good thing, but I’m not sure if they show that this fiber must have come from oats.
Nutritional profile of oats and oatmeal
Oats also seem to have a decent nutritional profilealthough one wonders how bioavailable these minerals are without proper processing.
A 100 gram serving of oats contains:
- 389 calories
- 16.9 grams of protein
- 66 grams of carbohydrates
- 10.6 grams of fiber (almost half soluble)
- 7 grams of fat (about half PUFA and half MUFA)
- 4.72 mg iron
- 177 mg of magnesium
- 3.97 mg zinc
- 0.6 mg copper
- 4.9 mg manganese
Oatmeal is a perfect example of the essentially tasteless but strangely comforting food that is hard to give up (Judging from all the emails I get). It’s hard to explain because oatmeal isn’t particularly tasty. It’s boring unless you really dress it up with dried fruits, sweet syrups and other high-sugar ingredients that primal, paleo and keto people would rather avoid.
I suspect it’s more than just taste. I have fond childhood memories of large, warm bowls of porridge that are steaming on the breakfast table. I added brown sugar, dug in, and set off on adventure through stormy New England mornings with a brick of powdered oat in my happy belly. The nostalgia continues today, although I don’t eat the stuff and don’t really feel like it.
However, since I had some steel cut oatmeal lying around the house from a previous houseguest who dearly needed his oatmeal, I decided to try them. For self-experiment. Gasp! – Eat some whole grains willingly and intentionally. It was McCann’s Irish oats. Raw, not steamed, and probably of high quality.
It was okay. The generous amount of butter I added quickly disappeared without a trace and I had to keep myself from adding more as that would have been the rest of the stick. The berries and cinnamon looked and smelled nice, but they were swallowed up in the mildness. I even added a tablespoon of honey but couldn’t taste it. It was satisfactory in the sense that it provided bulk in my stomach.
Half an hour later, I felt kind of bad. It’s hard to describe. A spatial, distant feeling? Drugged easily? However you want to describe it, it didn’t feel right. It only took about half an hour, however. My digestion was fine and I never felt bloated, except for the initial “brick in the stomach” feeling.
This is my experience with oatmeal. Yours can be different.
My opinion on oats as a food? Better than wheat, worse (and more work to improve) than rice. I’m not going to eat them because I honestly 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 admit they aren’t. It’s as bad as wheat. If I want starch, I’ll go for some sweet potatoes.
What about you guys Do you eat oats? Would you be ready to soak, ferment, and cook them? Let me know how it worked or worked for you!
About the author
Mark Sisson is the founder of Marks Daily Apple, godfather of the Primal Food and Lifestyle movement, and the New York Times best-selling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, which describes how he combines the keto diet with a pristine lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is also the author of numerous other books, including The Primal Blueprint, which is credited with the growth of the Primal / Paleo movement in 2009. After three decades of researching and educating people about why food is the key component to achieving optimal wellbeing, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real food company, the Primal / Paleo, Keto and Whole30 friendly kitchen staples manufactures.
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