Monday, September 14, 2009

Go to Health: Oats

Oats have been grown for human food and for livestock since ancient times. In Samuel Johnson's dictionary, oats were defined as "eaten by people in Scotland, but fit only for horses in England." The Scotsman's retort "That's why England has such good horses, and Scotland has such fine men.”

The Hype on Oats & Cholesterol: After the publication of several articles in the 1980’s on the value of oats to lower cholesterol, oat products from candy bars to pasta to chips were promoted with exaggerated claims for health and weight loss.

The Evidence: Oats contain more soluble fiber than other grains; a soluble fiber called beta-glucan is especially valuable, and is found in oats, barley, yeast and certain mushrooms. Beta-glucan in yeast and mushrooms has been found to have favorable immune-enhancing effects. Studies are incomplete on similar effects from eating oats. In 1997, the FDA said that "a diet high in soluble fiber from whole oats (oat bran, oatmeal and oat flour) and low in saturated fat and cholesterol may reduce the risk of heart disease". The FDA had reviewed 37 studies in which oats were consumed as hot and cold cereals or used in a variety of other foods - muffins, breads, shakes, and entrées. It was concluded that about 2/3 cup of oatmeal daily would provide the beta-glucan to achieve a clinically relevant decrease in serum total cholesterol concentrations. Most studies have shown a reduction of total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol of 7 to 10% . The soluble fiber in oats appears to reduce the absorption of cholesterol in the intestines. (Soluble fiber with similar effects on cholesterol are found in barley, dried beans, apples, pears, prunes and psyllium seed).

Blood Sugar: Oat fiber has also been shown to lower levels of blood sugar after a meal, making it a good food for people with diabetes. The reduction of the glucose and insulin peak after eating the soluble fiber in oats occurs because oat digestive products in the stomach and small intestine are more viscous, which retards their absorption into the bloodstream.

Inflammation: whole oats contain a beneficial polyphenol (a class of antioxidant compounds found in most plant foods) called Avenanthramides (AV) . Unique to oats, AV interferes with inflammation and the development of plaque on the arteries. Moshen Meydani at the Vascular Biology Laboratory at Tufts University studied AV and found that adhesive molecules cause blood cells to stick to artery walls. Inflammation results, leading to a buildup of plaque that narrows the artery. The suppression provided by the AV in oats may allow better blood flow.

Skin protection: Oatmeal has been used since Roman times or longer to relieve itch and skin irritation. Recent studies show that AV in oats inhibits inflammation in skin cells when applied topically. Itching and scratching are suppressed. AV has been found to be effective in reducing the redness of sunburn when used in the 24 hours after a burn. It will give temporary relief to the itching of poison oak and poison ivy. The use of oatmeal products on the skin as an anti-irritant has potential in the care of infants, people with sensitive skin, sunburns and itchy, dry skin. You can make your own soothing oatmeal bath to relieve skin itching and inflammation by grinding a small amount of rolled oats in a blender; put the resulting flour into a a cheesecloth bag and run warm tap water through it for a bath. Many oatmeal-derived products are available commercially; ask your pharmacist for advice. .

. Sadja Greenwood, MD –back issues at


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