overnight oats topped with plum in a glass jar with a spoon laying on top

Beloved by grannies everywhere, rolled oats are more than just a cheap breakfast staple for when you blow your grocery budget on spin classes.

Even without all the Instagram-worthy toppings, rolled oats are packed with health benefits that might have you giving these humble grains another look. Not convinced? Read on for why oats are a true staple of an anti-inflammatory lifestyle—and whether or not they’re actually gluten free.

Health Benefits of Rolled Oats

In the quest to eat more colourful plants, oats aren’t exactly the first food to come to mind. Don’t let that beige exterior fool you: oats are incredibly nutrient-dense. Whole grain rolled oats are known for phytochemicals called avenanthramides that have antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and even anti-histamine properties. Ever take an oat bath to soothe your skin? That’s why it works.

Oats also contain more vitamins and minerals than you might expect. A few of the big ones critical for those on a plant-based diet:

  • Iron: oxygenates your tissues, supports immune function, and fights fatigue
  • Magnesium: calming to the nervous system, supports proper muscle contraction, and fights inflammation
  • Copper: maintains cellular energy, supports iron metabolism, and builds cellular antioxidants
  • Zinc: critical for wound healing, gut cell metabolism, and immune function
  • Phosphorus: an important structural component of bone (it’s not just about calcium!)

We also can’t have a discussion about oats unless we talk about fibre.

Yep, the oatmeal story just gets sexier, doesn’t it?

Why Soluble Fibre Is So Good For You

Fiber is the part of plant foods our bodies can’t digest or absorb. It is the reason leafy greens have crisp cell walls and the reason oats form a sticky gel when cooked. Because you don’t digest and absorb fibre, it travels to your colon, where it gets fermented by bacteria, creating byproducts that keep us feeling amazing.

However, oats have a type of fibre that is not as common: soluble fibre, namely, beta glucan soluble fibre. Beta glucan does a whole bunch of amazing things you might not expect.

  1. Helping control blood sugars
  • Soluble fibre is soluble in water (hence its name), forming a gel that binds to glucose in our small intestine. The result? Slower glucose absorption into our bloodstream and more stable blood sugars and energy levels.
  1. Reducing cholesterol
  • Our liver creates bile from cholesterol to help us digest and absorb the healthy fats we eat. Again, soluble fiber has a binding role; it binds bile in our small intestine, forcing bile to be excreted instead of getting recycled back to the liver. In order to make more bile, our liver has to pull more cholesterol out of the blood. The result? Lower blood cholesterol. Yay!
  1. Keeping you full
  • Soluble fibre helps slow digestion and absorption of nutrients in the gut. And if we are digesting slower, we stay fuller, longer.
  1. Supporting growth of beneficial bacteria in the gut
  • If you want them to thrive, you need to feed your gut bacteria well. What do they want to eat? FIBRE. (Surprise!) Bacteria ferment fibre, and create a host of byproducts such as short chain fatty acids that nourish our gut cells and support our immune system.
  1. Keeping you moving
  • Yes. I’m talking poop. But if you’re not going daily, you need to do something about it. You might expect that since oats help slow digestion that they would be constipating … but in fact, oats help alleviate constipation by feeding beneficial bacteria, sweeping the gut clear, and adding weight to the fecal contents.

Ta Da! Now you can go tell all your friends about the benefits of fibre. Just don’t do it at a dinner party, okay? Ha! Who am I kidding … I am the queen of inappropriate dinner party convo.

Are Oats Gluten Free?

I promised to talk gluten — and I didn’t forget! Oats do not contain glutenin, the gluten fraction that causes reactions in gluten intolerant folks. HOWEVER, most oats are cross-contaminated with gluten across every stage of production, from seed and grain storage to manufacturing.

So, on a gluten free diet, you must buy certified gluten free oats. These are specially grown and processed to ensure no cross-contamination. Happily, they are pretty easy to get these days.

In addition, if you’re celiac and are new to a gluten free diet, the Canadian Celiac Association recommends you lay off oats until your gut is healed. Why? Oats contain a protein called avenin, which some people with celiac disease may cross-react to. It’s NOT gluten, but it might aggravate those with gluten intolerance.

How to Use Oats

Ever gone to the store and been totally confused by which oats to buy? While they are all still oats, the different varieties differ in texture and processing, cooking time required, and nutritional content (the less processing = the more nutritional value = longest cooking time). Here’s how it breaks down, from least to most processed:

Steel-cut: whole groats, cut with chewy/nutty texture; 15-60 minutes to prepare

Rolled oats: toasted/flattened whole oats; 15-20 minutes to prepare

Quick cooking oats: toasted/cut whole oats; 5-15 minutes to prepare

Instant oats: cut/pre-cooked/dried/steamed/flattened whole oats; 5 mins to prepare

Whichever you choose, know that they’re all nutritious.

Now that we’re excited about oats (!!) here are a few ways to get more oats into your day:

Classic
  • Throw together ½ cup oats, 1 cup water or plant-based milk, and a pinch of salt into a pot and bring to a boil. Then reduce heat, simmer until oats are soft, and add your fave toppings.
  • Love steel cut but don’t have time to prepare? Try this genius method: boil oats for 5 mins the night before, turn off the heat and leave on the stove with the lid on. The next morning, you’ll wake up to fully cooked oats you just need to reheat!
Overnight
  • One of my faves! This one is for those of us wanting to save time in the A.M. and great for warmer weather.
  • Combine 1/3 cup oats (though not steel cut) with 1 cup of your favourite milk, and any desired, flavourings in a mason jar and place in the fridge. Then, just grab and go in the morning.

Ready to try them? Opt for this yummy overnight oat recipe, with fresh plums and oolong tea.

Baking

Whew! Okay … I think that’s everything you need to know about oats. A huge thank you to my intern, Beth Nanson, who helped put this article together.

Photo Credit: Alyssa Dawson