It’s the grain that’s on nearly everyone’s breakfast rotation – oats! Also known as Avena sativa, oats are widely cultivated in North America and Northern Europe. What is considered the “grain” is actually the edible seed of oat grass. While it’s less popular than wheat and rice around the globe, it is highly prized for its nutrient density and widely enjoyed as a cereal grain.
Key Nutrients in Oats
Oats are an incredibly nutrient dense grain and among one of the highest dietary sources of manganese, a key mineral critical for metabolism, bone health, and inflammatory balance. One half-cup serving provides twice the recommended daily allowance of this important trace mineral. Oats are also high in two other bone-strengthening nutrients, phosphorus and magnesium, as well as copper, zinc, iron, vitamin B1 (thiamin), and two forms of vitamin E: tocopherols and tocotrienols.
Interestingly, oats offer a good balance of all three macronutrients, offering essential amino acids (protein building blocks), unsaturated fatty acids, and slow-burning complex carbohydrates. Oats are probably most known and appreciated for their dietary fiber, as they are a great source of a soluble fiber called beta-glucan, which forms a viscous gel in the digestive tract. This kind of fiber has been shown to benefit cardiovascular health, gut health, blood sugar balance, and immune health.
Key Phytonutrients in Oats
In addition to macronutrients, vitamins, and minerals, oats also offer a wide range of antioxidant phytonutrients. More specifically, oats contain a unique type of polyphenol alkaloid called avenanthramide.1 There are about 40 different types of avenanthramides have been found in oat grain and oat leaves, which are not found in other cereal grains. These phytonutrients offer a wide range of specific potential health benefits, including:
- Cardio-protective, as they may prevent low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol oxidation
- Anti-inflammatory and antioxidant activity
- Cancer-protective and may inhibit cell proliferation
- Protection from skin irritation, soothes itchiness on skin and scalp, and may help prevent lipid peroxidation in human hair follicles
- Detoxification support; may increase glutathione levels
- May enhance nitric oxide production, supporting normal blood pressure2
Potential Health Benefits of Oats
Oats are considered a “super food” by many for their wide range of potential health benefits. Research supporting its role in heart health is so robust that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the first food-based health claim stating that the soluble fiber found in oats is associated with a reduced risk for coronary heart disease.3 But the potential benefits don’t stop there. There are even more reasons to love oats, including potential benefits in many areas of health, including:
Cardiovascular health: The fiber found in oats has been found to reduce total cholesterol, LDL cholesterol, and triglycerides, thereby offering cardiovascular health benefits. Soluble fiber forms a viscous gel and binds to cholesterol and bile in the intestines, allowing for more efficient cholesterol elimination through the stool.4 Beta glucan fiber may also affect cholesterol metabolism by modulating the gut microbiota.5 Furthermore, avenanthramide, a unique antioxidant found in oats may enhance nitric oxide production, which would benefit blood pressure, vascular elasticity, and blood vessel function.6
Blood sugar balance: Consuming whole grain oats has been found to reduce the risk for type 2 diabetes and improve post-prandial blood sugar balance. The main proposed mechanism for improved glycemic control is the viscous nature of beta glucan fiber, which slows carbohydrate digestion and absorption of glucose. Secondary mechanisms have also been proposed in the literature, including beta glucan’s potential ability to downregulate the expression of glucose transporters.7
Gut health: Oat fiber, mainly soluble beta-glucan fiber, supports regularity and acts as a prebiotic. Some research suggests that the benefits of beta-glucan fiber from oats may extend beyond its viscous binding properties. Oat beta glucan fiber has been shown to modulate the intestinal microbiota through its prebiotic activity, and may increase bacterial strains that positively affect bile acid metabolism and short chain fatty acid production. These same beneficial strains, including L. reuteri and Akkermansia muciniphilia, are associated with improved gut barrier function.8,9
Immune support: The potential health benefits of oats and beta-glucan fiber has included anti-cancer, anti-inflammatory, and immune-modulating properties. Beta-glucans may be recognized directly by the innate immune system. Several immune cells including neutrophils, macrophages, and dendritic cells express beta-glucan sensitive receptors.10 In addition, gut microbes utilize beta-glucan as a prebiotic, preferentially supporting the beneficial bacteria that produce short chain fatty acids. These actions support immune function via associated gut-related immune function.11-13
With such a wide range of potential health benefits, it’s no wonder oats – a common breakfast staple – has evolved beyond the bowl to become more popular than ever.