A bowl of oatmeal a day keeps the cholesterol at bay?

Dear Alice,

I read on a box of Quaker oats that oatmeal is "like little sponges that soak up extra cholesterol" and that a person can bring his/her cholesterol down to normal or below normal by eating a daily bowl of oatmeal (without milk or butter) and cutting back on high cholesterol foods. Is this true? I don't like oatmeal and want to be certain that this diet is going to work before I force myself to have a daily dose of it. I also get daily exercise (usually walking).

— Haulin' Oats

Dear Haulin' Oats,

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) prevents false health claims from making their way onto food packaging and certified that whole oats reduce the risk of heart disease in 1997, so you can rest assured that oatmeal does indeed have many healthful properties, including those printed on the packaging. In fact, the dietary fiber found in oats has been shown in scientific studies to help lower cholesterol, which is a major risk factor for cardiovascular disease. While oatmeal is one way to reduce cholesterol, there are many other foods that might be more suited to your current diet and your preferences. For more on oats (or some appetizing alternatives) read on!

Oats contain beta-glucan, a water-soluble fiber thought to decrease LDL (low density lipoprotein, the cholesterol that can clog arteries) and total cholesterol. Soluble fiber has the ability to hold in a lot of liquid, and it becomes gooey when dissolved in water. This feature allows soluble fiber to travel slowly through the digestive tract and stick to bile acids in the intestine, which are made from cholesterol. The fiber then carries the bile acids out of the body as waste, reducing the amount of cholesterol that can be absorbed in the body. While soluble fiber reduces cholesterol and prevents heart disease, insoluble fiber is also critical in a healthful diet. Insoluble fiber, which doesn't dissolve in water, helps to regulate the digestive system and promote movement of food and waste through (and out of) the body. 

Fiber has other benefits too, such as keeping blood sugar at healthy levels. Maintaining blood sugar levels can prevent type 2 diabetes or help those with diabetes to manage their symptoms. Because foods with high fiber are more filling, but less dense with calories, they can also help a person to reach or maintain a weight that meets their body's needs. For those with irregular bowel movements or hemorrhoids, daily fiber consumption may also be the key to reducing discomfort and regulating digestion. 

So, how much oats does a person really need to get the health benefits? Research has shown that 1 to 1.5 cooked cups of oatmeal daily can reduce cholesterol by 5 to 8 percent. Other sources of soluble fiber may help instead of, or in addition to, the oats. Some examples of dietary soluble fiber include:

  • Kidney beans
  • Pinto beans
  • Brussels sprouts
  • Oat bran
  • Oranges
  • Apples
  • Broccoli
  • Grapefruit
  • Spinach
  • Brown rice
  • Whole wheat bread
  • Grapes

Processed oats, such as white breads or pastas, canned fruits or vegetables, or pulp-less juices, aren't as fibrous as whole-grain oats, because some of the natural fiber is stripped during the refining process. To get the full fiber benefits, it's best to incorporate whole grains as often as possible.

While it's always beneficial to munch on plenty of fruits, veggies, and whole grains, diet isn't the only way to reduce the risk of heart disease. Getting thirty minutes of daily physical activity, whether that's walking, jump roping, swimming or other movement you enjoy, is another way to keep heart-healthy. Avoiding smoking and reducing stress are also habits that will help to maintain a healthy heart, reducing blood pressure and bringing down cholesterol.

Lastly, while oat cereals are part of a balanced diet, if you can't stand them, don't worry. You can incorporate many other strategies and dietary sources of soluble fiber into your lifestyle to achieve better heart health. It also may be helpful to talk with a registered dietitian to come up with a diet that works for you and includes the foods that you enjoy. To life!

Last updated Jul 01, 2022
Originally published May 05, 2001

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