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Health Answers

Are oats really as good for you as we are told?

(Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff)
Email|Print| Text size + By Judy Foreman
February 25, 2008

Well, they won't make you immortal, but short of that, oats are one of the best foods you can eat, particularly if your goal is to lower your cholesterol.

David Jacobs, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health, said he believes oats really do deserve a "thumbs up."

Because they are hard to refine (they get so sticky that they gum up the machinery) most of the oat products available are whole grains, precisely the type of carbohydrate that nutritionists say we should eat more of. Jacobs and his team, in a 2007 study of more than 27,000 post-menopausal women followed for 17 years, concluded that eating whole grains such as oats was linked to a lower risk of death from diseases that are triggered by inflammation, including heart disease and diabetes.

One of the reasons oats are so good for you is that they contain an ingredient called beta-glucan, a natural anti-inflammatory agent that suppresses the body's production of certain cytokines.

An analysis of data pooled from 10 studies published in 2007 by the Cochrane Collaboration, an international group that evaluates health research, touted the benefits of whole grains for lowering both LDL ("bad" cholesterol) and total cholesterol in people diagnosed as being at risk for coronary heart disease. Eight of the 10 studies involved only oats, and seven of those found a clear, beneficial effect. The researchers cautioned, however, that even though studies show a consistent, positive effect, most are short-term and are paid for by companies that sell oat products.

Dr. George Blackburn, director of the Center for the Study of Nutrition Medicine at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, said that 6 grams of oats eaten daily for a month can lower LDL by about 10 percent in people whose LDL levels are very high, say 200 milligrams per deciliter. That means that if your LDL is very high to start with, you might still have to take a cholesterol-lowering drug such as Zocor, even if you eat oats. Doctors say that optimal LDL is 100 or lower.

The take-home lesson is a no-brainer: Eat more oats.

JUDY FOREMAN

E-mail health questions to foreman@globe.com.

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