Oatmeal And Cholesterol Control – Which Whole Grains Are Best To Lower LDL Levels?

Over the last decade, dozens of studies have been conducted that have closely connected oatmeal and cholesterol control.  The results from these studies have been found conclusive enough by the FDA to allow whole grain foods to receive the health claim that “soluble fiber from foods such as oat bran, rolled oats, or oatmeal, and whole oat flour, as part of a diet low in saturate fat and cholesterol, may reduce the risk of heart disease.”  The Whole Grains Council has compiled a review of over 40 studies that come to a consensus that whole grains can lower heart disease risk from 25-28%, in part due to the lowering of LDL cholesterol levels.  These studies have all been conducted since 2004.

The biggest reason why oatmeal has cholesterol reducing capabilities is the amount of beta-glucan that it contains.  Many studies indicate that the amount of beta-glucan consumed is directly related to a decrease in LDL cholesterol levels.  The FDA suggests that at least 3 grams of beta-glucan be consumed each day for maximum LDL lowering effects.

Since it is becoming very clear that a diet consisting of regular servings of whole grains can help reduce bad cholesterol, we are interested in understanding which type of oatmeal should be in your bowl every morning.  We will discuss how oatmeal helps to lower cholesterol levels in other articles.  For now, lets look at the various types of oatmeal:

Oat Groats (porridge):

Groats

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Whole grains consist of three parts – the outer bran layer, the inner germ layer, and the endosperm found in between.  When whole grains are processed they tend to lose the outer bran layer and the inner germ layer, leaving you with the carbohydrate rich endosperm.  While processed grains still contain some beneficial nutrients, they are missing the fiber and high levels of beta-glucan of the bran layer as well as the vitamins, sterols, and stanols found in the germ layer (plant stanols and sterols are known for their cholesterol reducing power).

While all oatmeal consists of all three layers, porridge (cooked oat groats) undergoes the least amount of processing.  Due to the minimal processing, porridge has the highest amounts of nutrients.  However, cooking oat groats can take up to an hour and a half so this is not always an option for most people since it does not fit in with a busy lifestyle.  Most people don’t have a couple hours before work to cook and eat a bowl of porridge.  Not only that, but most people find cooked oat groats to be too chewy and not appealing to include as a regular part of their diet.

Oat Groats For Cholesterol Control:

  • The least amount of processing -> the highest levels of nutrients and LDL cholesterol fighting compounds (beta-glucan, sterols, stanols).
  • Cooked oat groats are known as porridge.
  • Takes a VERY long time to cook – 1.5+ hours.
  • Can have a chewy consistency.
  • May be hard to find and expensive – often only found in health stores or online.

Steel Cut Oats (Irish Oatmeal):

Steel Cut Oats

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Steel cut oats are essentially oat groats that are just cut into smaller pieces using a steel (thus the name) blade.  Generally, steel cut oats do not go through any other processing steps so this is the next best option after oat groats.  Since the pieces are smaller they cook a bit faster.

Steel Cut Oats To Lower Cholesterol:

  • Very little processing – oat groats cut into smaller pieces.
  • Cooks faster than groats, but can still take 15-30 minutes to cook.
  • Easier to find than porridge.  Most grocery stores will carry steel cut oats.  Bob’s Red Mill is a growing brand that many grocery stores now carry.  Quaker is also offering steel cut oats (look for a blue round cardboard container).
  • For those used to instant oatmeal, steel cut oats has a completely different texture and taste that must be tried to appreciate.
  • A serving contains 3-4+ grams of beta-glucan so one bowl can cover the requirement for your entire day.

Rolled Oats:

Rolled Oats

Image via Flickr

This is the type of oatmeal that most people are familiar with – the familiar white, red, and blue round cardboard container of Quaker oatmeal is what is often associated when someone says “oatmeal”.  Rolled oats take on their name due to the fact that they are groats that have been sliced and then rolled out to be thin flakes.  This helps decrease the cooking time.  There are three types of rolled oats, depending on the thickness the oats are cut before being rolled.  The thinnest are termed “instant oatmeal” because they can be prepared in just a minute or two using hot or boiling water.  Next is “quick-cooking oatmeal”, which is a little thicker.  Finally, there is “old-fashioned oatmeal”.

Since rolled oats have gone through more processing, they do have less nutrients than steel cut oats.  However, you will still be getting all three components of whole grains so your breakfast will contain some beta-glucan as well as the other nutrients you can find in whole grains.

Rolled Oats For Reducing LDL Cholesterol:

  • Called “rolled” oats because the cut oats are rolled using heavy rollers.
  • Most familiar type of oatmeal – includes the Quaker “tubes” of oatmeal, as well as the many types of instant oatmeal packets.
  • Lower levels of beta-glucan, but still a good option to include in your diet.
  • Old-fashioned and quick-cooking oats contain 2 grams of beta-glucan per serving.
  • Instant oatmeal typically contains around 1 gram of beta-glucan per serving.

While all types of oatmeal contain the nutrients needed to help lower LDL cholesterol, the varieties that are processed more contain a lower amount.  If you have the time and enjoy the taste, steel cut oats are the best option.  You can get your daily recommended amount of beta-glucan in just one serving.  However, steel cut oats are not an option, consuming rolled oats is perfectly fine.  Oatmeal and cholesterol control is one step to reduce your heart disease risk.

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