Oats are healthful and gluten-free. They provide fiber, complex carbohydrates, protein, and other essential nutrients. They are suitable for many people with celiac disease. However, some people may experience reactions to oat protein.
Oats are a whole food that can provide fiber and other nutrients for people with celiac disease, as they need to avoid gluten. It can also be a good choice for people without celiac disease who choose not to eat gluten.
Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder in which the body reacts in a harmful way to gluten. If a person with this disease consumes gluten, this can cause damage to the small intestine, reducing its ability to absorb nutrients. Celiac disease demands a gluten-free diet.
Gluten is a protein that is present in wheat, rye, barley, and triticale.
Oats do not belong to any of these groups, so they are usually safe for people with celiac disease to eat.
However, people with gluten sensitivity, particularly those with celiac disease, may still need to be careful about eating oats. One reason is that contamination can occur because, in many cases, farmers grown oats in fields close to wheat and other gluten-containing crops.
Additionally, many oat-processing plants also process foods that contain gluten. People with a gluten intolerance should always check food labels and look for oats that are entirely free of gluten.
People with celiac disease need to avoid food that contains gluten.
Avenin sensitivity and oats
Contamination is not the only problem, however. Some people with celiac disease will experience inflammation after eating oats, even if they follow a gluten-free diet.
This is because oats contain avenin, a protein that plays a role similar to gluten in wheat. In some people with celiac disease, avenin activates the same immune cells that react to gluten. They may not notice a reaction at once, but in the long-term, damage can occur.
In 2014, a study showed that eating 100 grams (g) of oats a day for 3 days activated immune cells that targeted avenin. However, this only affected 8% of participants.
The authors concluded that for most people with celiac disease, consuming 100 g of oats per day is unlikely to have long-term unwanted effects.
In 2016, the North American Society for the Study of Celiac Disease recommended monitoring anti-tTG (anti-tissue transglutaminaste) antibody levels before and after adding oats to the diet. This would give a clear idea of how eating oats affects an individual.
People who are introducing oats to the diet should start with small quantities and log any symptoms they experience. They should also remember that symptoms do not always appear at once in a person with celiac disease. For this reason, it may be best to talk to a doctor or dietitian first.
If no symptoms occur and blood level antibodies remain stable, it should be safe to keep eating oats.
Experts have expressed concerns that people who follow a gluten-free diet may lack some essential nutrients.
Whole wheat provides carbohydrates, fiber, folate, iron, calcium, and B vitamins. People who avoid wheat and cereals may be at risk not only of a low intake of these nutrients but also of consuming more fats and sugar in the foods that replace them.
Oats provide many of the nutrients that whole wheat contains. This can make oats a suitable whole grain alternative for people who avoid gluten.
Here are some of the benefits.
Whole grains and fiber
Studies suggest that fiber can:
- support digestive health by easing constipation
- lower the risk of colorectal cancer
- reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease
- prevent diabetes and lower blood sugar levels.
A 2016 review found that fiber in general, and oats specifically, increase the sense of satiety, or feeling full. The authors suggested that oats can help people adhere to a weight management diet.
When a person feels full, they will have less desire to overeat. Reducing food intake can lower the risk of obesity and other diseases that contribute to metabolic syndrome.
Vitamins and minerals
Oats are high in several nutrients.
They also contain B vitamins, including folate, which experts recommend taking during pregnancy to help prevent neural tube defects in the unborn child.
Oats contain a group of antioxidants called avenanthramides, a phenolic compound that occurs almost exclusively in oats. Avenathramides appear to have various health benefits. They lower blood pressure by helping the body produce more nitric oxide, which relaxes the muscle cells in blood vessels.
Oats contain a type of fiber known as beta-glucans. These substances can help lower total cholesterol and low-density lipoprotein (LDL), or “bad” cholesterol. High levels of LDL cholesterol are associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke.
The antioxidants in oats, such as phytosterols, avenanthramides, tocols, and saponins, may also help reduce cholesterol, according to a 2018 review.
Oats are a healthful choice of carbohydrate, but their calorie and nutrient density can significantly change based on what ingredients or toppings a person adds, such as sugar or cream.
Steel-cut, raw, and unprocessed oatmeal are the best choices, as processing can reduce the nutritional content. The body digests processed oats more quickly, which may raise blood sugar levels higher than unprocessed versions.
People can eat oatmeal soaked or cooked.
To cook oatmeal, place 1 cup of oats and 2 cups of water in a pan, bring to the boil, and simmer, stirring, for 5 minutes.
Then top with these ingredients:
- chopped walnuts
- dried fruit
People can eat oatmeal raw though anti-nutrients such as phytates can decrease the absorption of minerals. Soak oats first to make it easier to digest and to reduce the phytates.
Here is one idea for soaking oatmeal:
- Take one-third of a cup of rolled oats, and add one-third to a half a cup of low-fat dairy, almond, or soy milk
- Add one third of a cup of unsweetened Greek yogurt
- Add a small chopped banana or 1 cup of fresh fruit.
- Sprinkle a teaspoon of chia seeds on top.
- Add cinnamon to taste.
- Leave overnight.
In the morning, top with nuts, such as walnuts or almonds.
Oats can also replace wheat flour as the basis of some baked goods.
Oats can be a healthful alternative to cereal for people who have celiac disease or who choose not to eat gluten. They can provide fiber and other nutrients that are not available in other foods.
Oatmeal appears to be safe for most people with celiac disease to consume.
However, with some oatmeal and premade oatmeal foods, there may be a risk of contamination with gluten. In addition, some people’s immune system may react to oat protein similar to gluten reactions.
People with celiac disease, a wheat allergy, or other digestive conditions may wish to speak to a doctor or dietitian before introducing oatmeal to their diet.
They should also read ingredient lists carefully and check packaging and labels to see how the food was processed. If the manufacturers processed the product alongside gluten-containing ingredients, it may not be safe to eat.
Which is the most healthful type of oatmeal?
Steel-cut oats are the ideal choice. They are minimally processed, high in fiber, and contain naturally-occurring vitamins and minerals. Look for gluten-free oats if you have cross-contamination concerns.
Steel-cut oats take longer to cook, so making a batch at the beginning of the week for easy leftovers not only makes breakfast quick and easy but also gives the added bonus of gut-nourishing resistant starches. Resistant starches form when carbohydrates, such as oats are cooked then cooled for at least 4 hours.
My favorite oatmeal eaten either cold or warm is leftover plain steel-cut oats with mixed berries (from frozen), almonds, walnuts, chia seeds, and an optional dollop of coconut cream or milk.
Natalie Butler, R.D., L.D. Answers represent the opinions of our medical experts. All content is strictly informational and should not be considered medical advice.