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WDDTY vol 18 no 11

First, the perfect breakfast was eggs, then grains like muesli, then low-carb. But nothing seems to beat the benefits of good old oatmeal.

The latest report shows that one of the healthiest ways to start your day is with oatmeal. Oats are far less refined than wheat and have consistent evidence of benefit in terms of preventing degenerative diseases of all varieties.

A review of the most up-to-date studies of oat consumption not only confirms the conclusions of a 1998 Food and Drug Administration on oats in the reduction of blood cholesterol, but has even uncovered new benefits (Am J Lifestyle Med, 2008; 2: 51-7).

Eating oats and oatmeal appears to reduce total blood cholesterol. According to its own review by the Cochrane Collaboration, a non-profit organization promoting evidence-based healthcare, the combined results of eight studies showed that oat consumption virtually – and significantly – halved total cholesterol and LDL (the bad cholesterol) concentrations while having no effects on high-density lipoproteins (the good cholesterol) (Chochrane Database Syst Rev, 2007; 2: CD005051).

According to the Chochrane review, the net effect translates to an over-all reduction of the risk of coronary heart disease by 5-15 per cent. Nevertheless, it should be noted that the authors had some concerns over the short trial durations and small numbers of participants involved in some of the reviewed studies.

The benefit of oats appears to extend beyond that of just fibre. Studies comparing consumption of oat cereal with wheat cereal show that oats can influence the particulate size of cholesterol, leading to lower numbers of the undesirable small, dense cholesterol particles that are thought to clear far more slowly than larger, lighter particles. Consuming oats also appears to speed up the oxidation of cholesterol, whereas consuming wheat apparently slows it down (Am J Clin Nutr, 2002; 76: 351-8).

Furthermore, the study found that during weight-loss programmes, adding oats to the diet lowered blood cholesterol by an additional 4-12 per cent (J Nutr, 2001; 131: 1465-70; Ann Nutr Metab, 2003; 47: 306-11).

Oats contain avenanthramides, phenolic compounds with powerful antioxidant effects that can help to prevent the development of plaque on the arterial walls – at least according to laboratory studies of cell cultures.

In these test-tube studies of avenanthramides added to human heart artery-cell cultures, they were able to reduce inflammation, and prevent adherence of immune system cells and the development of smooth muscle – all of which are precursors of plaque (Atherosclerosis, 2004; 175: 39-49).

Other studies have shown that oats may normalize blood pressure, although the results of the various studies are mixed.

Besides coronary heart disease, eating oatmeal may help to regularlize insulin sensitivity and so prevent type 2 diabetes, another common condition of older age.

Although whole grains in general appear to reduce the risk of diabetes, oats may work particularly well because they contain a fibre called beta-glucan, which can lower the rise in blood glucose and delay emptying of the stomach (J Am Coll Nutr, 2007; 26: 639-44).

For this reason, oats may also help to stabilize weight. Oats are favoured by diet specialist Dr Michel Montignac, the inventor of the low-glycaemic-index (GI) diet, as a low-GI food allowable even during the first stage of the diet. Oatmeal also helps in losing weight because it offers a greater feeling of fullness or satiation than other cereals or bread. This may be because it is combined with water. Some researchers believe that incorporating water into meals, rathern than only drinking it alongside, may be more healthful and may promote weight loss (Am J Clin Nutr, 1999; 70: 448-55).

Perhaps the reason for all these plaudits is that oats undergo far less processing than other grains and, as oatmeal, are always consumed as a whole grain. What isn't known is how frequently you should eat oats in your daily diet, as the results of studies have often been inconsistent. In the absence of specific data, perhaps the best rule of thumb is to stick to a daily dose of porridge or to bake your own loaf of oat bread.

oats in a gluten-free diet

Oats may be an acceptable alternative for people who ordinarily cannot tolerate gluten. Although oats, which do contain gluten, have always been excluded in a gluten-free diet, new studies and reviews of the literature from 1995 have shown that they are safe for coeliac disease sufferers if taken in moderation - up to 70 g (1/2 to 3/4 cup) of oats per day for adults, and up to 25g (1/4 cup) per day for children (Can J Gastroenterol, 2007; 21: 649-51).

This research has found that the long-term consumption of oats is well tolerated, and doesn't lead to small-bowel muscosal deterioration or immune activation, as triggered by other gluten-containing grains. Nevertheless, it may be wise to first test your child with oats to make sure he can tolerate them.

Also, be sure to buy your oats from a manufacturer who takes care to ensure that the grains are not contaminated in production by other grains such wheat, barley or rye.

Written by Lynne McTaggart

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