To Oatmeal and Beyond: 10 Health Benefits of Oats
If you are from Scotland like me, you’ll know that oats are a staple at the breakfast table in the form of porridge, and are a key ingredient in haggis. Outlander fans will be familiar with oats as ‘parritch’, and according to the male protagonist Jamie Fraser, ‘parritch’ is a panacea for every ailment. He may not be far wrong.
Oats are cereals – the seed of the grass family – and their latin name is Avena sativa.
To herbalists and nutritionists, oats are so much more than simply a breakfast staple. In fact, there are three forms in which oats are used, and each has a different therapeutic action.
The mature oat seed – the popular porridge and oatmeal breakfast/muesli/granola
The green milky oat tops – the flower/immature seed
Oatstraw – the green stems with a few left over green oat tops
1. Oats as food
The mature oat seed is processed into several different forms following the harvest.
Whole oats: These contain the hard outer hull (think about the outer layer of corn silk that you peel off). Oats are rarely used in this form.
Groats are the oat seed with the inedible hull removed. The hulls are usually removed, otherwise digestion of the oat would be near impossible. This leaves behind the oat bran, oat germ and the starchy inside.
Steel cut oats: These are similar to groats but the seed has been cut into 2-3 smaller pieces. They are chewy and tasty, and take about 15 - 20 minutes to cook on the stove.
Rolled oats: Once hulled, the oat is toasted, softened by a steaming process and flattened by huge rollers into their more traditional presentation. Preparation takes about 5 minutes on the stove.
Quick cooking oats: These are similar to rolled oats but are cut into thinner pieces so that they cook in a shorter time – about 1 minute on the stove.
Instant oats: These oats are precooked, rolled, and dried into small thin flakes, and take about 60-90 seconds in the microwave. They usually come in small bags, are flavoured, and contain added sugar and salt.
Oats have the highest protein content of all grains. They are a source of healthy fats and fibre, and contribute some vitamins and minerals to the diet. These include iron, vitamin B1 (thiamine), magnesium, and selenium (if the oats are grown in selenium-rich soil). Overall, oats are a highly nutritious little package.
Research has shown that eating soluble fibre, such as that found in oats, may help to improve cholesterol levels. The soluble fibre found in oats, called beta-glucans, is thought to trap cholesterol in the digestive tract and remove it from the body.
3. Heart Health
But there is more to the humble oat and your heart. Recent research has also reported that a group of constituents found only in oats called avenanthramides, has anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant action. Increasing evidence is suggesting that these constituents may reduce inflammation in blood vessels and thus may be beneficial in preventing heart disease.
And more! The avenanthramides may contribute to a healthy blood pressure by increasing nitric oxide production – nitric oxide relaxes blood vessels.
3. Blood Sugar
Research has shown that foods that are high in soluble fibre, such as oats, may help improve blood sugar levels for people with diabetes, especially type 2.
4. Weight Loss
Several studies have shown an association between eating oats and weight loss. The fibre in oats, beta-glucans, forms a gel which increases the viscosity of the contents of the stomach and small intestine. The gel delays emptying of the stomach contents which makes one feel fuller for longer, more satisfied and assists weight loss.
5. Gut Health
In addition, there is some early research suggesting that the fibre in oats supports and encourages the growth of healthy gut bacteria. This is important for people with celiac disease, non-celiac gluten sensitivity or sensitivity to fructans, and who avoid wheat, rye and barley grains. Oats provide an alternative whole grain prebiotic fibre for encouraging a healthy gut microbiome.
Although oats do not contain gluten, they can be contaminated with gluten from other sources. People with celiac disease should purchase oats that are prepared in a gluten free facility to eliminate the possibility of cross-contamination.
Oats as Medicine
Long before the ripe hardened seeds appear, the green flowering oat tops sway in the wind swept fields. If you were to take one of the flowers (more like an immature seed) and squeeze it, you would find that it exudes a milky white substance. Squeezing the oat tops was a thing of children’s play in the Scottish Highlands – fascinating to a child. It is in the milky oat tops that we find other medicinal qualities of the oat. The milky exudate is only available for 1-2 weeks before the life of the plant moves onto the next cycle of seed ripening.
6. Brain Health
Recent studies support the effect of green oats on reducing anxiety and improving cognitive function showing that its use is associated with improvements in memory and concentration.
7. Nervous System Support/Adaptogen
Traditionally the green/milky oats have been used and are still used as a nervine tonic, a plant to support the nervous system with a calming quality. In herbal medicine, the milky oat tops are indicated for times of change with cumulative stresses and when required adaptations leave a person feeling physically and emotionally exhausted. In my own practice, I like to include a tincture or infusion of green oat tops, among other supportive herbs, for shift workers, new mothers and for people adapting to significant changes or life events. Difficulty falling asleep, even in the face of exhaustion, is another indicator for the use of green oat tops. I am often grateful for the therapeutic benefits of oats as they are quite unique, nutritious and safe.
8. Tobacco Withdrawal
A tincture (alcohol extract) of the green/milky oats has been used as part of a strategy to support tobacco withdrawal. Studies show mixed results.
9. Bone Health
Oatstraw is the green stems mixed with some of the green grains. It retains some therapeutic quality but not as strong as the milky oats. It is however, rich in minerals. I will often mix oatstraw with nettle, horsetail and alfalfa as a mineral-rich, nourishing infusion when called upon for bone health or for convalescence.
10. The Skin
Oats have been used for centuries for their emollient properties. Recent studies have found oats to be anti-inflammatory and anti-itch when applied to the skin.
Oatmeal, finely ground, can be added to a bath to ease skin irritation, dryness or inflammation. We can use it two ways. Either add a couple of large handfuls of oatmeal to a muslin bag or a stocking and let it soak in the bath as the bath water is running. Once the bath is ready, the bag of oatmeal can be gently laid on the irritated areas of skin. Alternatively, you can add 60g of oat flour or ground oats to the bathwater (150-200 litres) and soak in it that way.
Recent research has identified some anti-inflammatory components in oatmeal that are thought to be responsible for the soothing, anti-inflammatory action of the oats. They appear to be especially useful in eczema.
Artisanal soap makers create oatmeal soaps that are wonderfully soothing on skin that is dry, irritated or itchy. I will often recommend this in cases of eczema.
On a side note – The Aveeno® range of products were originally made from only oats and originated in Canada. The name is a play on the name Avena, the latin name for oats.
Rolled oats work well for this. Add them to a mason jar with either water or a milk/plant beverage of your choice. You can add in some seeds too – consider hemp/chia/flaxseed/sunflower/pumpkin. Leave overnight in the refrigerator and in the morning you will have your breakfast. Simply add your favourite fresh/frozen fruit such as blueberries, nuts and a little yogurt, a sprinkling of cinnamon and if you are in a rush, put a lid on your freshly prepared meal and you have breakfast to go!
In our home, we make up a big container of muesli each week. The base is organic oats and we add almonds, walnuts, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, chia seeds raisins/goji berries, and dried apricots.
But don’t stop with breakfast – groats or steel cut oats can be used in savoury dishes too as a substitute for rice or barley. Consider using them in a soup, a casserole or a pilaf. Add them to minced beef or your favourite bean dish to make the meal go further. Sauté some onion and garlic in olive oil, add spinach, lemon rind and nutmeg and mix with cooked groats for a quick side dish.
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