If you’re like me, you probably have some fond memories as a kid of sitting down to a bowl of hot oatmeal. I used to help my grandmother make it at the cottage. I’d stand beside her at the stove and patiently wait for the pot of salted water to come to a boil. As she stirred the water with her beloved wooden spoon, I’d wait for her to nod and I’d slowly add the dried oats, little by little to avoid any lumps from forming. It needed to be smooth through and through.
It’s not all love and sunshine for grains
Grains and grain products, including oats, have taken a lot of heat lately ever since the Paleo diet philosophy hit the stage. In a nutshell, those who follow Paleo principles say that grains were never a significant part of the human diet until very recently [evolutionarily speaking], i.e. in the last 8000 to 10,000 years. While there is evidence that early humans did in fact include grains, they certainly didn’t eat them in the amounts that we currently do today.
Paleo folks state that grains are not easily digested by humans and that grains and grain products have compounds that interfere with nutrient absorption, a.k.a. ‘anti-nutrients‘, which include things like fiber, saponins, phytates and more. While it’s true that diets that are imbalanced to include a lot of grains, like the macrobiotic diet, which also excludes other healthy foods like meats, eggs, fish, many vegetables etc can lead to nutrient deficiencies, as part of a varied diet that includes nutrient-dense foods with a variety cook and raw preparation methods, grain products can be a healthy addition and won’t necessarily lead to nutrient imbalances.
Those who follow and promote nutritional ketogenic diets for both weight loss and therapeutic reasons (and there’s valid evidence for that, especially where there’s any kind of metabolic damage) also shun grains and grain products simply because they are rich in starch. Their argument is that grain and grain products spike blood sugar and can lead to diabetes and a host of other diseases. or at the very least aggravate metabolic diseases. In this case, I’m not opposed to limiting grains and grain products [notice I said limit and not eliminate] as a strategy to help manage blood sugar etc.
Are there any redeeming qualities to grains such as oats?
Eating Well with Canada’s Food Guide isn’t all bad. Lord knows I have many issues with it but the basics are all there. Whole grain products can be part of a healthy diet and I don’t buy into the Paleo or the ketogenic philosophy that categorically dismisses them as poisons any more than I blindly accept conventional wisdom that states whole grains are the ‘be all and end all’.
I don’t include a lot of grain products in my own diet and I’ve seen many people in private practice who follow an almost grain-free diet; neither them nor I are on the brink of death. The notion that a diet can’t be healthy unless whole grains are included is hogwash. The vast majority of the research on whole grains is epidemiological. Having said that, whole grains do contain useful nutrients and oats are no exception.
Protein: protein is made up of amino acids which are the building blocks of the body. Protein in animal foods contains all 8 essential amino acids in amounts needed for health but most plant foods do not. Whole grains like oats is one such example. For the amino acid profile of oats to resemble that of say an egg, oats need to be eaten with other protein-containing plant foods like nuts, seeds or pulses [chickpeas, lentils, dried peas & beans]. Combining plant foods in this manner is referred to as ‘ protein complementing’ thereby delivering all of the essential amino acids that the body needs.
Fiber: fiber is simply a form of carbohydrate that our bodies cannot break down, as such, it helps to bulk our stool and helps to keep things moving along supporting healthy bowel movements and more. Fiber also aids in the natural detoxification process that’s happening 24/7; no need for fancy cleanses or teas. When we eat, bile is released to help with the digestion of food. Toxins that the liver has filtered piggy back on the bile and when the bile combines with fiber, it’s bound up and excreted in the stool. In this manner, fiber does help with detoxification. How easy is that? Fiber also helps to feed the bacteria that live in our gut. By doing so, we give our beneficial bacteria the food they need to reproduce and keep us healthy.
Micronutrients: oats are a good source of vitamins and minerals such as B1 (thiamin), B2 (riboflavin), B3 (niacin), folate, calcium, iron, magnesium, potassium and phosphorus. B vitamins are used for energy production, help with mood by supporting the production and function of neurotransmitters, and are needed for normal growth and repair including blood cell formation. Oats also include more potassium and phosphorus than other popular grains such as rice, wheat and corn. Potassium is an unsung hero that most people don’t get enough of. It’s critical for a healthy blood pressure.
Phytonutrients: oats contain loads of plant compounds called phytonutrients that go beyond just acting as antioxidants. They help to positively influence the activity of our genes and it’s believed that this ability is what’s responsible for their many health related attributes.
Including more oats is easy. Use them to make a classic oatmeal porridge that your grandmother would be proud of, toss some into your favourite protein shake, use them to make pancakes [look for a recipe that uses a decent amount], muffins, high protein pancakes, muesli, cereal bars and more.