Eating a bowl of oatmeal as part of a healthy breakfast has long been touted as a healthy way to start your day. This is due to the fact that oats contain soluble fiber, which has been shown to help lower LDL (bad) cholesterol. Two recent studies however, suggest that fiber may not be the only heart-health benefit found in oats.
Until recently, scientists thought that the beta-glucan found in the soluble fiber contained in oats was the only ingredient for promoting heart health. While beta-glucan does play a pivotal role in the process by helping to lower cholesterol, it may not be the only player.
Oats, just like fresh fruits and vegetables, contain phytochemicals, which are naturally occurring chemicals found in plants. Phytochemicals are being studied to understand their role in keeping people healthy. Oats, in particular, contain a large number of flavonoids, which are antioxidants that may help protect cells from the process of oxidation. While almost 4,000 flavonoids have been identified in the plant world, scientists have only recently started exploring how the oats-related flavonoids can be beneficial to your health.
In one of the studies, conducted at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University, researchers extracted some of the phytochemicals found in oats to observe their effects on cholesterol and other substances found in the bloodstream. During the study, scientists took LDL cholesterol and measured how easily it would oxidize in a test tube with or without flavonoids extracted from oats. The oxidation of LDL cholesterol is believed by health authorities to be a step in the process leading to hardening of the arteries. The researchers found that the oat extract inhibited the oxidation of LDL cholesterol. They also discovered that adding vitamins C and E, both of which are powerful antioxidants, had a much more powerful effect in the presence of oat phytochemicals than they had expected.
“What we appear to be doing is building a story that says that it’s more than soluble fiber. Mother Nature provided more of these (flavonoids) than just those found in fruits and vegetables,” noted researcher Jeffrey Blumberg, Ph.D., professor of nutrition and chief of the antioxidants research laboratory at Tufts University.
In the second study, also conducted in a test tube, scientists studied the effect of flavonoids known as avenanthramides on human aorta cells and found that these chemicals reduced the number of molecules that stick to the cells. The study suggests that avenanthramides may help reduce the very early steps that could ultimately lead to plaque formation on the artery walls. These flavonoids also appear to have an anti-inflammatory effect by reducing the production of cytokines, which are proteins that trigger inflammation as part of the body’s immune system response.
“The assumption is that the presence of these compounds in natural foods will prevent late life problems,” noted Mohsen Meydani, D.V.M., Ph.D., professor of nutrition and director of the vascular biology laboratory at Tufts University, who worked on the study.
Tips for Adding More Oats to Your Diet
- Replace crackers or breadcrumbs in meatballs and meatloaf recipes with oats.
- Use ground oats as a breading for fish or chicken.
- Substitute oats for up to one-third of the flour in breads, cakes, cookies, or muffins.
- Make oatmeal pancakes topped with fresh fruit.
- Make your own oat-based granola.
- Replace nuts in cookie mixes with toasted oats. If you are using refrigerated cookie dough, gently kneed oats into the softened dough before baking.
- Use oats as the topping for your fresh fruit crisp.
- Top yogurt or low-fat ice cream with toasted oats and fresh fruit.
- Use oats instead of flour as a thickener in soups and stews.
There is no question that oats are an important component of a heart-healthy diet. As scientists continue to study oats, even more potential heart-health benefits may be found. If you are looking for an easy way to improve your heart health, why not give oats a try?
If you'd like to try more food ideas like these, visit our Cooking & Recipes section.
Source: United States Department of Agriculture (USDA)