On Nutrition

Oats may not be the new whole grain on the block, but this pantry staple is super nutritious — and far from one size fits all.

Oats are rich in a variety of nutrients and beta-glucan, a type of soluble fiber research shows can help slow digestion and increase satiety. Beta-glucan can also bind with cholesterol-rich bile acids in the intestine and “escort” them out of the body. The Food and Drug Administration allows the use of a health claim that consuming beta-glucan from whole-grain oats is associated with a reduced risk of heart disease. Whole oats also contain phytochemicals that act as antioxidants to reduce the damaging effects of chronic inflammation associated with conditions like cardiovascular disease and diabetes.

Oats don’t contain gluten — the proteins found in wheat, rye and barley — but they can be cross-contaminated with gluten on the farm, in the processing facility or in the bulk-foods section of the grocery store. If you need to avoid gluten, choose brands that test their oats every step of the way and are processed and packed in a certified gluten-free facility.

When oats are free of gluten contamination, they are safe for the vast majority of people with celiac disease — an autoimmune disorder for which the only available treatment at this time is 100 percent avoidance of gluten. But a small percentage of people who are sensitive to gluten — or more specifically, gliadin, a component of gluten — are also sensitive to avenin, a protein in oats that is similar to gliadin.

Culinary uses

Oat groats are whole oat kernels that have been cleaned, hulled and toasted. They’re equally suitable for a chewy, satisfying hot cereal or a savory side-dish pilaf. When oat groats are cut into two or three pieces, they become steel-cut oats, pinhead oats or Irish oats. They take less time to cook than groats, but more than rolled oats. Many people who think they don’t like oatmeal change their mind when they try a bowl of cooked steel-cut oats. Increasingly, you’ll find quick-cooking or instant steel-cut oats. What’s the deal? Quick-cooking steel cut oats generally have some of the pieces rolled flat to decrease cooking time. Instant steel-cut oats have been cooked and dried, so they don’t require recooking — only the addition of hot water.

If groats are instead steamed and flattened with huge rollers, they become rolled oats — either regular (aka old-fashioned) or thick. The difference is that thick-cut oats aren’t rolled as thinly, so they have a chewier texture when cooked. Quick-cooking rolled oats are groats that are cut into pieces before they are rolled. And instant oats? These are cut groats that have been cooked and dried before rolling, and tend to not be as satisfying. Better to go for Scottish oats, stone-ground groats that make a quick-cooking, creamy porridge. Ground finer, groats become oat flour, which can be used for baking or for thickening soups and stews. And oat bran? That’s the outer casing of the oat, and it’s very high in soluble fiber.

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Oat smoothies

Oatmeal is a classic cool-weather breakfast, but if that doesn’t sound appealing consider adding oats to a smoothies. Oats give your smoothie more body and substance, and adding protein powder can make it more filling and meallike. I recommend either whey protein (whey is one of the proteins in dairy milk) or a plant-based protein powder that does not include soy (whole soy foods are well-studied, but soy protein isolate is not). You could also swap in plain yogurt or kefir for part of the liquid, if you like the added tang. 

Soaking the oats for an hour (or longer — you could even soak them overnight) in the milk will make for a creamier smoothie, but it’s not essential. Each recipe serves one — you can double this recipe, but don’t multiply it further, as more than ½ cup of oats may not blend well. I put greens in all of my smoothies, but here only added them to the blueberry smoothie, because if you’re new to green smoothies, the color can be off-putting, and the dark blueberries hide it well. I consider baby spinach to be the “gateway green,” but you can certainly progress to using the mixes of baby chard, kale and spinach that are widely available.

Blueberry-Greens Oat Smoothie

¼ cup raw old-fashioned rolled oats

½ banana, chunked

½ cup frozen blueberries

½ cup dairy or plant-based “milk” beverage

1-2 handfuls baby spinach

Pinch of salt

Optional: 1 scoop protein powder

Good Morning Mocha Oat Smoothie

¼ cup raw old-fashioned rolled oats

1 banana, chunked

½ cup dairy or plant-based “milk” beverage

1 tablespoon unsweetened cocoa powder

½ teaspoon espresso powder

½ teaspoon cinnamon

Pinch of salt

Optional: 1 scoop protein powder

Strawberry-Peanut Butter Oat Smoothie

¼ cup raw old-fashioned rolled oats

½ banana, chunked

Handful of frozen strawberries

½ cup dairy or plant-based “milk” beverage

1 tablespoon peanut butter (or other nut butter)

Pinch of salt

Optional: 1 scoop protein powder

Universal Instructions:

Add oats to blender and pulse a few times to grind them slightly. Add liquid, and allow to sit for an hour or so, if desired. Add rest of ingredients, and blend until smooth and creamy, stopping the blender midway if needed to scrape down the sides. Serves one.