When I was young, for example, my mother would sometimes cook oat porridge for me to eat when I fell ill - even though my family is Chinese and oat porridge is not normally eaten by the Chinese.
In fact, rice porridge - which the Chinese eat a lot - is also beneficial for people who are ill. But somehow, my mother had some vague idea about the health benefits of oats, especially oat porridge, as a food for sick people.
In Western culture, oats have come to symbolise health in many ways. Walk into any health foods store and you will see lots of "health products" - muesli, granola, "energy" snack bars", etc - made with oats.
Some of these products are actually not all that healthy (and I will discuss the reasons in another article). But their strong presence shows how notions about the health benefits of oats have become deeply ingrained in the popular culture.
In the US, the biggest chain of natural and organic foods supermarket is called Wild Oats.
Food for horses?
It is true that oats is more widely used as animal feed than as human food and it is an important part of a horse's diet. But while Samuel Johnson's description of oats is not complimentary, it further reinforces the perception about the health benefits of oats. For not only are horses known to be strong, but the Scots, too, are reputed to be a strong and highly resilient race.
Incidentally, chickpeas is another food commonly fed to horses and also a food that is strengthening for humans. given its high content of protein and dietary fiber.
Scientific studies have shown that oats help athletic performance - by influencing the body's metabolic rate - when it is eaten about 45 minutes to one hour before moderate physical activity.
A hardy plant
The oat plant, too, is strong. It is a grass that thrives in poor soil conditions as well as colder, harsher environments that do not support other grains like wheat and rice - in countries like Scotland, Ireland and Iceland.
If you have ever eaten whole oat groats, you will also know that it is a very tough and chewy grain, like wheat, barley and rye. These grains, with a line running down the middle, are all calssified in the same category by the Japanese, who call them "mugi".
The toughness of oats is the main reason why it is most often eaten in the form of rolled oats, or oatmeal / oat flour made into pancakes and cookies. In recent years, steel cut oats have become popular as they are closer to whole oats and considered healthier.
These qualities give further clues to the health benefits of oats. If you understand the oriental philosophy of yin and yang, you will appreciate that hard, tough foods make you strong, just as soft foods make you weak.
Meanwhile, the fact that oats grow in a cold climate makes it a grain particularly suited to people living in cold climates, for it warms the body. Likewise, oats is good to eat in the morning when the weather is cold, or during autumn and winter.
In addition, the warming effect can be beneficial to those who are weak from illness. Other grains that grow in cold climates include buckwheat and rye and these, too, have similar warming effects.
A whole grain
Another major reason for the health benefits of oats is that it is mostly eaten as a whole grain and not, as in the case of wheat or rice, as a polished, refined grain that has the bulk of the fiber, protein, oils, minerals, vitamins and other nutrients removed.
Most people know of oats as Quaker Oats, the brand that has been marketed by the Quaker Oats Company since it was formed in 1901 by the merger of four oat mills.
ALL Quaker Oats oat products are made from whole oat grains, and these include its range of quick-cooking "instant" oats. I used to think that instant oats are refined but I was mistaken. They are "instant" because they have been pre-cooked and also rolled / cut more finely, not because they are refined.
When you eat oats, you enjoy all the benefits of whole grains, including the high fiber content. These benefits include:
However, there is still refined oats, sometimes called "white oats". Better to avoid these and eat whole grain oats or oat products instead.
Health benefits of oats from fiber
This brings us to one of the most widely known health benefits of oats - its content of soluble fiber, which has been scientifically proven to reduce cholesterol and protect against health disease.
As a whole grain, oats is about moderate in fiber. It has more fiber than, for example, brown rice but not as much as barley.
Fiber content of foods - GRAINS (80 grams dry, uncooked)
|Food||% fiber||Fiber (grams)|
However, fiber comes in two forms - soluble and insoluble - and among all grains, oats have the highest concentration of insoluble fibre, roughly 50 percent soluble and insoluble.
During the 1980s, a lot of scientific research was done on the benefits of insoluble fiber. In fact, this was the fime scientists finally began to acknowledge the health benefits of fiber, as, for more than 200 years previously, they stubbornly asserted that "fiber has no nutritional value" since it is not absorbed by the body during digestion.
Scientific studies on insoluble fiber led to widespread public awareness about the health benefits of oats and during the 1980s, oats gained the status of a "super grain".
Today, the oats craze has died down as further scientific research revealed that both soluble and insoluble fiber are beneficial to health in different ways. Basically, soluble fiber promotes fermentation in the digestive tract (which brings various benefits, including improved immunity), while insoluble fiber helps move the digested food along and promotes regular bowel movement.
Of course, oats has its share of unique qualities as well. We take a closer look at these special qualities in Part II of this article on the health benefits of oats.
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