Oats are a nutritious, affordable, and delicious whole grain choice. If you are one of many people who are struggling to reduce your cholesterol, your doctor likely has already advised you to include oatmeal as part of your heart-healthy diet. What you may NOT know is that the type of oats you choose will either reduce or increase your risk for heart disease.
Oatmeal is available in many forms: instant, quick-cooking, old-fashioned, steel-cut, and whole oat groats.
While often the most popular, instant oats may increase your risk of heart disease due to three dangers:
- They are lowest in soluble fiber.
- They have the highest glycemic index.
- Most are sweetened and contain artificial ingredients.
Let’s start with why soluble fiber is important. These water-soluble fibers form gels within the digestive tract, and provide many beneficial health effects including:
- Soluble fiber (specifically beta-glucan) increases excretion of bile acids; less cholesterol recycled forces the liver to use circulating blood LDL cholesterol to make more bile.
- Soluble fiber traps cholesterol, resulting in less cholesterol absorption in the small intestine.
- Fermentation of beta-glucan creates short-chain fatty acids that interfere with HMG-CoA reductase (the enzyme required for cholesterol production.)
Foods rich in soluble fiber include fruits (especially pear, apple, and citrus fruits), oats, barley, and legumes. Research has shown that just 5-10 grams of soluble fiber per day will reduce LDL cholesterol by about 5 percent. The National Institute of Health National Heart, Lund, and Blood Institute recommends an even higher intake of 10-25 grams per day to lower LDL even more.
If your choice of oats is instant, you are not getting the full benefit of adding soluble fiber to your diet. One packet of plain Quaker Instant Oatmeal contains just 1 gram of soluble fiber, the same amount as 1 cup of Cheerios. You’d have to eat 5 servings of instant oatmeal to reach the minimum recommendation of 5 grams per day.
The less the oatmeal is processed, the more soluble fiber it will contain. Here is a comparison of the soluble fiber content of different types of oats:
Whole oat groats (1/2 cup dry) – 4 grams
McCann’s steel-cut Irish oatmeal (1/2 cup dry) – 4 grams
Quaker Old-Fashioned Oats (1/2 cup dry) – 2 grams
Quaker Quick-Cooking Oats (1/2 cup dry) – 2 grams
Quaker Instant Oatmeal (plain, 1 packet) – 1 gram
You can find whole oat groats in the bulk section of natural food stores. For a shorter cooking time, place them in a food processer or spice grinder and pulse them a few times to grind them into smaller pieces.
What about the second danger, glycemic index (GI)? GI is a numerical index that ranks carbohydrate-rich foods according to their effect on blood glucose levels – the higher the number, the greater the rise in blood glucose. Pure glucose is used as a reference point and is given a GI of 100.
When blood sugar rises quickly, it triggers the release of insulin from the pancreas. When insulin levels are high, hormones inside our cells called eicosanoids become skewed toward pro-inflammatory compounds. On top of this, high insulin levels activate enzymes that raise levels of arachidonic acid in the blood, potentially magnifying the inflammatory response. High blood sugar levels also increase the risk of damage to blood vessels. Extra sugar molecules may attach to a variety of proteins that can injure the blood vessel walls. This repeated injury to the blood vessel wall sets off inflammation. If you spike your blood sugar level several times a day, every day, it is exactly like taking sandpaper to the inside of your delicate blood vessels.
A low GI food is defined as 55 or less, a high GI food as 70 or higher, and between 55 and 70 are medium GI foods. The GI of the different types of oatmeal are shown below:
Whole oat groats – 52
McCann’s steel-cut Irish oatmeal – 52
Quaker Old-Fashioned Oats – 58
Quaker Quick-Cooking Oats – 69
Quaker Instant Oatmeal – 83
Instant oatmeal has a high glycemic index compared to a medium or low glycemic index for other forms of oatmeal, which could increase inflammation and risk of damage to blood vessels.
That leads us to the third danger: most instant oatmeal is sold pre-flavored and pre-sweetened. Added sugars increase the glycemic index even more, resulting in a food that has little benefit for lowering cholesterol while increasing inflammation and damage to blood vessels. This is the exact opposite of what your morning bowl of oatmeal is intended to help you do!
When it comes to lowering cholesterol, it is worth the extra effort and money to purchase steel-cut oats and make them part of your daily diet. To save time, cook them in your crockpot or cook them the night before to shorten preparation time in the morning.
Here are two easy recipes to get you started.
Perfect Steel-Cut Oats
Serves 2-4, depending on how hungry you are!
3 cups water
1 cup steel-cut oats
pinch of salt
Bring the water to a boil and stir in the oats and salt. Let the water and oats come back to a boil then reduce to medium-low heat. Let the oats simmer with the lid slightly ajar, stirring frequently until cooked through – 20 minutes for chewy oats or 30 minutes for softer oats. Stir in extras like milk, sweeteners, nuts, and fruit off the heat in individual bowls. Refrigerate leftovers for up to five days.
Overnight Steel Cut Oats
1 1/2 cups steel-cut oats
6 cups water
1/4 cup chopped almonds
1/4 cup blueberries
In a large saucepan, boil the oats in the water for 1 minute. Cover and let stand overnight at room temperature. The next day, uncover the oats and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat to low and simmer, stirring frequently, until the oatmeal is cooked and creamy but still a little bit chewy, about 7-10 minutes. Spoon the oatmeal into bowls. Top with the chopped almonds and blueberries.