How Does Oatmeal Lower Cholesterol Levels?

Through many studies over the last decade it has been shown that oatmeal is a great natural way to reduce bad cholesterol (LDL). Adding a daily bowl of oatmeal to your low-fat and low-carbohydrate diet can lead to a decrease of LDL cholesterol of up to 25-28%. While these benefits have been identified (a review of more than 40 studies has been compiled by the Whole Grains Council), the question may then be – how does oatmeal lower cholesterol levels?

Oatmeal is a whole grain, whether you microwave some instant packets of oatmeal or slow boil a hearty bowl of steel cut oats.  This means that it consists of three layers – an outer, inner, and middle layer.  The outer layer is rich in fiber and is typically classified as the ‘bran layer’.   The inner layer is the ‘germ layer’ and is full of vitamins, with Vitamin E being the leading nutrient, as well as some minerals, fiber, and plant sterols.  The middle layer, or the endosperm, is where the energy is.  It is full of complex carbohydrates.  While all of the vitamins, minerals, fiber, and sterols (which are known to fight cholesterol) are very important in helping with the reduction of cholesterol an overall good health, the most important nutrient for lowering LDL levels is beta-glucan.

How Does Oatmeal Lower Cholesterol Levels?

Image via Flickr

Beta-glucan is a soluble fiber that essentially grabs LDL cholesterol and removes it from the body as waste.  It is beta-glucan that the FDA recommends to help lower LDL cholestrol.  The recommendation is 3 grams of beta-glucan consumed every day.  You can get up to 3 grams or more of beta-glucan in a bowl of oatmeal, which is why oatmeal is a great food to naturally reduce cholesterol.

So, what is so special about beta-glucan and how does it help lower LDL cholesterol?

In a way, beta-glucan acts the same way as two common cholesterol lowering drugs that are prescribed by doctors – bile acid sequestors and statins.

During digestion, beta-glucan essentially becomes a sponge that soaks up bile acids.  It then is excreted as waste, taking the bile acids along with it.  Your liver, which creates the bile acids, will notice the reduction of bile acids and will increase production.  How this becomes really good news is that bile acids are created using LDL cholesterol.  Therefore, as you consume more beta-glucan you will excrete more bile acids which causes the conversion of more LDL cholesterol into even more bile acids.  Thus, your levels of LDL will decrease.  Due to this mechanism, many studies indicate that as you consume more beta-glucan your LDL levels will decrease further.

Statin drugs work by getting in the way of cholesterol production in the liver by interacting with the enzyme HMG-CoA reductase.  Beta-glucan works in the same way by creating short-chain fatty acids during digestion.  These short-chain fatty acids (acetate, propionate, and butyrate) interact with HMG-CoA reductase in the same way that statin drugs do.  This is another method in which oatmeal naturally lowers cholesterol.

While beta-glucan is the most important tool that oatmeal uses to fight cholesterol, there are other reasons why it should be added to your diet.  Eating oatmeal may help with weight loss.  This is because of several properties of oatmeal that helps the body feel full earlier than when eating other foods.  With a decrease in weight there is often a decrease in bad cholesterol levels.  Also, oatmeal is packed with antioxidants and amino acids that have been shown to have LDL-lowering effects.

The easiest and fastest answer to ‘how does oatmeal lower cholesterol levels?’ is simply ‘beta-glucan’.  Yes, there are other answers but this soluble fiber has been found to be a very important and effective tool to help you in your fight.  Now it all comes down to choosing an oatmeal that you enjoy and that you can fit into your diet.