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Health benefits of oats

WebMD Feature
Medically Reviewed by Dr Rob Hicks

A steamy bowl of porridge on a cold morning not only tastes good but it could be doing you the power of good too.

There are plenty of studies showing the health benefits of including oats in your diet. They're a great breakfast choice when it comes to helping you feel fuller for longer, and their fibre can help keep your heart healthy too.

Know your oats

Oats come in different forms. Oat groats are the whole, cleaned oat grain with its inedible hull removed. They're not the most popular choice as they take the longest to cook but soaking them overnight helps speed up cooking time. Steel cut oats are oats cut into two or three pieces using steel cutters, which makes them easier to cook. They are sometimes called 'Irish oatmeal'.

'Scottish oatmeal' is made by traditionally stone-grinding oats, and the milling process gives smaller pieces of oats and a smoother porridge texture, compared to steel cut oats.

Rolled oats are steamed and flattened grains. They are either jumbo or pinhead sized, depending on the amount of milling after steaming. Rolled oats are also known as oatmeal. Instant oats are milled to be much finer, so cook quickly in a microwave for a speedy breakfast. Although they have exactly the same nutrient content as rolled oats, their glycaemic index (GI) is higher. This means their carbohydrate content is digested and the sugars released are absorbed much faster than larger rolled oats.

Oat bran is made from the outer skin of the grain. It's often added to cereals, cakes and bread.

"Both oatmeal and oat bran are very good for you but oat bran will be higher in fibre," says dietitian and spokesperson for the British Dietetic Association, Anna Daniels. "The outer bran layer and germ of the grains also provide more nutrients than refined cereals, with 75% of the nutrients being in the outer layer."

Anna says: "The healthiest choice would be to choose the least milled variety, choosing whole large oats and oats without added sugars and flavourings."

So, what's the evidence they are good for us?

Oats may help lower cholesterol

There's evidence that oats may help keep cholesterol levels healthy. A risk factor for heart disease is high blood cholesterol levels.

A major review of the benefits of oats was carried out by Dr Carrie Ruxton in 2008. She analysed 21 studies and the results were published in the British Food Journal.

She says: "I found a significant effect of eating oats on blood cholesterol levels, particularly the so-called 'bad' LDL cholesterol."

"Experts have found that eating 60g of beta-glucan enriched oats daily could slash total and LDL cholesterol levels by 3% to 6% which is predicted to lower heart disease rates by up to 18%. The special ingredient in oats which causes this effect is beta-glucan, a type of sticky fibre. It works by trapping the body's natural cholesterol in the gut and transporting it out of the body," adds Carrie.

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