Oats are whole grains that promote heart health and have the ability to reduce cholesterol levels. Find out the secret behind oats that make them the top food choice for lowering cholesterol.

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As a registered dietitian, I often get asked about my go-to list of foods. One food I always mention is oats. Oats are commonly eaten as a breakfast item. A bowl of hot oatmeal with nuts and berries is my go-to breakfast for a gloomy morning. Its mushy and hearty texture comforts my soul. The goodness of oats goes beyond comfort, though. Research has cited that people who eat more whole grains, such as oats, have a lesser risk of heart disease by 21 percent than those who consume minimal amounts. Other studies have noted that eating an extra serving or two whole grains may reduce your LDL (bad) cholesterol. So, what is so unique about oats?

Pictured Recipe: Banana Oatmeal

What are oats?

Oats are the seeds of oat grass. They are whole grains that consist of the seed, including the bran, which houses the majority of the dietary fiber; the germ, which is packed with vitamins and minerals; and the endosperm, which contains the starch.

Commonly eaten as a breakfast food, oats are also milled into flour for breads, cereals and pasta, and rolled into flakes and used as an ingredient for cookies, scones and muffins. Oats could also be blended with water to make a creamy, non-dairy beverage, oat milk.

Oats are highly nutritious, offering 150 calories, 5 grams of protein, 2.5 grams of fat, and 4 grams of dietary fiber for every serving of 40 grams.

Banana Oatmeal
Credit: Caitlin Bensel

Oat health benefits

You may have heard that eating whole grains may provide several health benefits, including lowering your cholesterol, maintaining a healthy weight and reducing your risk for heart disease and cancers. Here is more information on some of the health benefits of oats.

Keep your heart healthy

What makes oats so special to the point where they are one of the most researched foods when it comes to heart health? The secret lies within beta-glucan, a type of soluble fiber present in oats. Soluble fiber dissolves in water, turning into a gel and acting as a sponge that binds to cholesterol and fats and removing them from the blood stream to be excreted. Research has found that eating 3 grams of beta-glucan from whole oats may reduce total cholesterol by 12 points. With 2 grams of soluble fiber present in every 40-gram serving of oats and with beta-glucan making up the majority of the soluble fiber, you may benefit from oats' cholesterol-lowering properties by eating 1.5 servings of oats regularly.

Stabilize blood sugar

The soluble fiber in oats also can stabilize your blood sugar by slowing down the absorption of glucose, the building block of carbohydrates. By doing so, you are less likely to experience sudden spikes and dips in your blood sugar level.

Maintain healthy waistline

Recent research from Tufts University also noted that eating whole grains such as oats may help maintain a healthy waistline. As noted in the study, when one consumes less refined grains, which have the bran and the germ of the grain removed, and eats more whole grains over time, they would see less of an increase in their waistline.

This effect could be explained by the soluble fiber's ability to absorb water. It creates a satiating effect where you may feel full sooner due to including whole grains as part of your meals and snacks, thereby eating fewer portions of food.

Types of oats

Keep in mind, though, eating 1.5 servings of oats once is likely not going to reap all the health benefits. Instead, consuming 25 to 38 grams of dietary fiber daily, including whole grains, vegetables, and fruits, along with following the recommendations from The Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020-2025, would maximize your chances of lowering your cholesterol.

Oats come in different varieties and are processed to varying degrees for palatability and digestibility. The less processed the oats are, the more cooking time is required.

Oat groats are the least processed among all types, with only the outer hull removed. Known for their chewiness, they require soaking before cooking.

Steel-cut oats are similar to oat groats, except they are cut into two to three pieces. Like the groats, they are also chewy in texture and require soaking and extended cooking.

Rolled oats are processed differently than steel-cut oats. Rather than cutting into pieces, they are steamed, pressed with a roller and then dried. Because of their shape, preparation time is reduced significantly with no soaking required. Unlike steel-cut oats, rolled oats provide a creamy texture.

Quick-cooking oats are rolled oats cut into smaller flakes, which further reduces the cooking time.

Instant oats are cooked and dried oat groats which are then cut into thin flakes. Because the oats are cooked during processing, they soften once combined with a hot liquid. While instant oats provide convenience, many varieties available are added with sugar and salt. That said, choose one that is low in sugar and salt, or one that is unflavored, or with no added sugar and salt. By choosing so, you can add your own ingredients, such as frozen fruits and unsalted nuts and seeds.

Oat bran, on the other hand, only consists of the outer layer that covers the groat. Medium brown in color and rich in flavor, it is abundant in fiber, with one serving (1/2 cup) providing 116 calories, 8 grams of protein and 7 grams of dietary fiber.

You can boost up the fiber content in your cereal by adding a tablespoon or two of oat bran to your cereal or to your favorite smoothie. You can also increase the fiber content in your homemade breads and cakes with oat bran.

While oats can stabilize your blood sugar level, keep in mind that their effects on your blood sugar vary, depending on the oat variety, you eat. The least processed the oats are, the lower their glycemic index is. The glycemic index measures how fast or slow the food is absorbed and consequently increases the blood sugar level. Oat groats and steel-cut oats have a lower glycemic index than rolled oats and instant oats, where the two former take longer to digest and release into the bloodstream.

Bottom line

Oats are a whole grain that offers numerous health benefits, including lowering cholesterol. They are versatile where you can eat them as a whole food or add them to a wide array of recipes. Start enjoy oats today! We have these recipes to make with a package of oats to help you get started.