True or False: Is It healthy to eat oatmeal (or oats in general) everyday?
Scrolling through social media, it’s not uncommon to see a post displaying a steaming bowl of oatmeal, usually topped with delicately arranged fruits and nuts. Oatmeal is often championed as the breakfast superfood that everyone should eat daily, and many people strive to incorporate it into their morning meals. However, is it healthy to eat this “superfood” every single day? Let’s take a closer look at the pros and cons of eating oatmeal daily.
Oatmeal is, indeed, very nutritious. Oats contain dietary fibers, including β-glucans (dietary fiber), protein, lipid and starch components and phytochemicals, which help to maintain bowel health. A significant amount of the protein in oats is considered functional proteins, that is, biologically active proteins that are good for the functioning of the cells in our body. Oats also contains compounds with high antioxidant activity, such as ester-linked glycerides, ester-linked alkyl conjugates, ether, ester-linked glycerides, anthranilic acids, and avenanthramides. Antioxidants protect the body by neutralizing harmful chemicals such as free radicals. Oats contain nutrients such as proteins, starch, unsaturated fatty acids, and dietary fiber. It also contains micronutrients such as vitamin E, folates, zinc, selenium, copper, manganese, carotenoids, betaine, choline, sulfur-containing amino acids, phytic acid, lignins, lignane, and alkyl resorcinols (Rasane et al., 2013).
According to the National Health and Nutrition Examination (NHANES) surveys, the U.S. population lacks many micronutrients including folate and vitamin E, which are contained in oatmeal (Bird et al., 2017).
Oats are suitable for celiac patients (Rasane et al., 2013).
Additionally, a study researching the effects of oatmeal on gut microflora activity revealed that oatmeal may have potential prebiotic benefits. Researchers studied ten participants, eight females and two males, before and after they ate 60 g of oatmeal (about ¾ of a US cup) every day for a week. The participants did the following before and after the dietary intervention: participated in a lactulose breath test, performed rectal dialysis, and allowed collection of their fecal samples. These tests were used to determine whether oatmeal affects lactulose-induced intestinal gas production, the levels of short-chain fatty acid, β-galactosidase, and urease, and the levels of prostaglandin E2 (PGE2), respectively. The lactulose-induced intestinal gas production and levels of short-chain fatty acid were used to determine colonic fermentation capacity. The results showed that after the dietary intervention, levels of β-galactosidase and urease were reduced, while colonic fermentation capacity did not change. These results suggest that oatmeal may regulate gut microbial activity. However, it must be noted that the study had a small sample size of 10 subjects, the majority of whom were female. Furthermore, short-chain fatty acid produced in the colon is easily absorbed; thus, a measurement of short-chain fatty acid levels in feces may not be the most accurate measurement of colonic fermentation (Valeur et al., 2016). Hence, this study may not provide the complete picture but instead may provide a promising insight that should be investigated further.
Some other experimentally verified benefits are (Zong et al. 2016):
Lowers blood cholesterol.
Reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease
Reduces the risk of colon cancer
While oats themselves are nutritious, contain antioxidants, and are potentially beneficial for gut health, oats can also contain unwanted chemicals, which may make eating oatmeal everyday not the best choice. For example, oats can be contaminated with mycotoxins (toxins produced by fungi). Cereal grains commonly contain fungal species. Although this does not necessarily mean that the grains are contaminated with mycotoxins, it does mean that the grains have a greater chance of contamination. Because mycotoxins are stable during food processing, it is almost impossible to eliminate them once grains are contaminated. Oat and oat-based products are more commonly contaminated with ochratoxin A, a mycotoxin, than other cereals and cereal-based products. According to surveys in the United States, 70% of oat based breakfast cereals contained ochratoxin A, and 59% of oat based breakfast cereals were highly contaminated with ochratoxin A. These levels found in US oats were much higher than the European Union mandate of a maximum of 0.5 μg/kg of ochratoxin A in infant foods (Lee & Ryu, 2017).
Oats are freat for adding fiber to your diet. However, eating too much fiber can lead to digestive problems. Oats can also contain herbicides and pesticides. Glyphosate is an herbicide used to kill weeds. It can rapidly convert to aminomethylphosphonic acid, which is possibly toxic to humans, even in small amounts. The nonprofit organization Environmental Working Group reported high levels of glyphosate, up to 2,837 μg/kg, in oatmeal and oat-based cereals. However, these values are below the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) glyphosate tolerance (the maximum amount allowed in food), which is 30 mg/kg in oats (Cruz & Murray, 2021).
So, what should we do?
Many foods besides oatmeal contain trace amounts of toxins (for example, rice contains a bit of arsenic and almonds contain a bit of cyanide), which, if consumed in great quantities and with extreme frequency, can accumulate to have a harmful impact. Although eating oatmeal has many benefits, too much of a good thing can often result in unsafe effects. A healthier solution might be to vary meal plans regularly to prevent the accumulation of specific toxins.
For a healthier oatmeal:
Avoid instant oatmeal that is laden with sugar
Do not consume too much oatmeal at any one time (spikes blood sugar levels)
Add other nutrient rich fruits (like blueberries) or vegetables (such as cooked beets or sweet potatoes) to your oatmeal
Most importantly, we should enjoy the variety of foods we eat rather than worshiping a specific food as the one superfood that should be consumed in regular quantities. After all, the world has so many delicious food options for us to explore; we would miss out otherwise.
Written by Youngseo Na and edited by Aldrin V. Gomes, PhD
Bird, J. K., Murphy, R. A., Ciappio, E. D., & McBurney, M. I. (2017). Risk of Deficiency in
Multiple Concurrent Micronutrients in Children and Adults in the United States. Nutrients,9 (7), 655. doi: 10.3390/nu9070655
Cruz, J. M., & Murray, J. A. (2021). Determination of glyphosate and AMPA in oat products for the selection of candidate reference materials. Food Chemistry. 342, 128213.
Lee, H. J., & Ryu, D. (2017). Worldwide occurrence of mycotoxins in cereals and cereal-derived food products: Public health perspectives of their co-occurrence. J. Agric. Food Chem, 65 (33), 7034–7051.
Rasane, P., Jha, A., Sabikhi, L., Kumar, A., & Unnikrishnan, V. S. (2015). Nutritional advantages of oats and opportunities for its processing as value added foods - a review. PubMed Central, 52 (2), 662-675.
Valeur, J., Puaschitz, N., Midtvedt, T., & Berstad, A. ( 2016). Oatmeal porridge: Impact on
microflora-associated characteristics in healthy subjects. British Journal of Nutrition, 115 (1), 62-67.
Zong, G., Gao, A., Hu, F.B., Sun, Q. (2016) Whole Grain Intake and Mortality From All Causes,
Cardiovascular Disease, and Cancer: A Meta-Analysis of Prospective Cohort Studies. Circulation, 133 (24), 2370-80.