Not only is oatmeal one of the best ways to start your day, aside from having someone else make breakfast for you, it's also among the easiest. Here, we'll share yet another health benefit of starting your day with a delicious bowl of oatmeal, lowering your cholesterol levels one spoonful at a time.
A healthy diet is balanced by the three macronutrients: protein, fat, and carbohydrates. All are essential sources of energy and micronutrients to help our bodies perform at their peak. Like protein and fat, not all choices are created equal when it comes to carbohydrates.
Simple vs. complex carbohydrates
A diet high in simple carbohydrates—carbs that are quickly converted to energy—can result in excess calories and unfavorable shifts in biomarker levels and health outcomes. This can include metabolic diseases, diabetes, and high triglycerides. Simple carbohydrates are found in most processed foods, candies, and sugar-sweetened beverages. However, some natural foods such as fruit also have simple carbohydrates.
On the contrary, diets high in complex carbohydrates—those that require quite a bit of digestion to be released as energy—are associated with favorable health outcomes, including decreased incidence of cardiovascular disease and diabetes.1 These carbohydrates:
- Provide long lasting energy
- Aid in digestion
- Improve metabolism
- Reduce fasting blood glucose
- Lower cholesterol
Beans, whole grains, and vegetables are excellent sources of complex carbohydrates.
How carbohydrates impact blood sugar
Aside from the vitamins and minerals found in whole grains, fiber is the nutrient that makes complex carbohydrates so beneficial for improving overall health. Whole grains are high in one form of fiber in particular, soluble fiber. Soluble fiber is named for its ability to absorb water and swell in the GI tract. As soluble fiber moves throughout the body after a meal or snack, it slows the absorption of the simple sugars that were also included in the meal.
Simple sugars eaten alone are rapidly absorbed into the blood stream causing a spike in blood glucose levels. When consumed without a need for immediate energy (like before going to bed or sitting at a desk), the pancreas is tasked with excreting enough insulin to bring blood glucose levels back down to normal. This results in a series of peaks and valleys in blood glucose levels throughout the day. Overtime, the pancreas becomes less and less effective at reducing fasting blood glucose levels—especially if it is regularly required to due to a high intake of simple sugars.
The role of soluble fiber and blood glucose levels
A diet high in soluble fiber helps to reduce the peaks and valleys of blood glucose because it slows the digestion of simple carbohydrates and slowly releases energy from other carbohydrates. This results in lower overall peaks in blood glucose, which in turn means less strain is placed on the pancreas to bring those levels back down. Translation: limiting the workload on your pancreas throughout your lifespan will decrease the likelihood that as you reach old age, your pancreas will be "worn out," leaving you at an increased risk of developing diabetes.
Insoluble fiber on the other hand does not swell with water. Celery strings and kale stalks are good visuals. This form of fiber is less influential on fasting blood glucose levels than its soluble counterpart. One specific form of soluble fiber is shown to be the most effect called beta-glucan. Beta-glucan is found in the largest amount in oatmeal, barley, and psyllium husk supplement. There is an overwhelming amount of research supporting the benefits of soluble fiber, and particularly beta-glucan, on the improvement of fasting blood glucose levels and development of type 2 diabetes.2,3,4
So what's the moral of the story? Start your mornings off with a bowl of oatmeal each morning in your younger years (or tomorrow) to avoid disaster (diabetes) down the line.
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References: McKeown NM, Meigs JB, Liu S, Wilson PW, Jacques PF. Whole-grain intake is favorably associated with metabolic risk factors for type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease in the Framingham Offspring Study. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2002; 76:390-398.
 Micha, Renata, et al. "Association between dietary factors and mortality from heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes in the United States." Jama 317.9 (2017): 912-924.
 Hagander, Barbro, et al. "Dietary fiber decreases fasting blood glucose levels and plasma LDL concentration in noninsulin-dependent diabetes mellitus patients." The American journal of clinical nutrition 47.5 (1988): 852-858.
 Wang, Qi, and Peter R. Ellis. "Oat β-glucan: physico-chemical characteristics in relation to its blood-glucose and cholesterol-lowering properties." British Journal of Nutrition 112.S2 (2014): S4-S13.